Jason Bateman has made a career out of playing dependable, mild-mannered individuals who put up with no shortage of incompetence and abuse, and it’s hard not to suspect that he signed on to direct “Bad Words” at least partly so he could cast himself as someone unrepentantly nasty for a change. More power to him: Bateman dishes out the pain with scathing aplomb as Guy Trilby, a hyperarticulate 40-year-old misanthrope who wriggles his way into a national spelling bee, crushing the dreams of hard-working children and parents alike. Essentially doing for one of America’s great scholastic pastimes what “Bad Santa” did for Christmas cheer, this exuberantly foul-mouthed and mean-spirited comedy goes somewhat soft in the final stretch but remains an often uproarious model of sharp scripting and spirited acting, spelling vulgar-crowdpleaser status in theatrical and ancillary play.
“Bad Words” marks an auspicious debut not only for director Bateman but also for screenwriter Andrew Dodge, whose 2011 Black List screenplay is a veritable treasure trove of withering one-liners and pungent putdowns. An amusing prologue shows Guy (Bateman) defiantly taking the stage at a regional spelling bee to the bewilderment of his pint-sized fellow competitors, whom he has no qualms about insulting, intimidating or beating. (“Why are you up here?” asks a slightly tubby-looking kid. “Your chair called me for help,” he snaps.) Official attempts to disqualify him come to naught thanks to Guy’s detailed knowledge of event regulations, allowing him to exploit a technical loophole via the fact that he never completed the eighth grade.
And so, accompanied by Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a news reporter who is sponsoring his participation while trying to write an article on his underlying motives, Guy makes his way to the national Golden Quills spelling bee held in Los Angeles. There, he immediately locks horns with the tournament’s formidable director (Allison Janney), who makes it her personal mission to take down the bee crasher. Among other setbacks, Guy finds himself assigned to sleep in a hotel supply closet, which doesn’t keep him from seducing Jenny, whose strange sexual predilections provide some incidental laughs here.
But the key relationship in “Bad Words” is the unlikely cross-generational bond that develops between Guy, who prides himself on having no friends, and precocious 9-year-old speller Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who won’t take no for an answer. No matter how repeatedly Guy tells the kid to get lost, peppers him with grossly inappropriate language or orders him to shut his “curry-hole,” Chaitanya’s sweetness and charm — as well as his strict, emotionally absent father (Anjul Nigam), who pressures him to win the bee at all costs — speak to something buried deep within Guy, whose own gradually emerging backstory brings the plot’s latent daddy issues to the fore.
In perhaps the most riotous and gleefully irresponsible sequence, Guy and Chaitanya wind up going on a night-long joyride in which the boy is swiftly introduced to the pleasures of drinking, swearing, ogling and finding ingenious new uses for ketchup packets. While the relationship here is cuter and more calculated than the similar dynamic in “Bad Santa,” it nonetheless unfolds with enough crude, spontaneous energy to generally neutralize the film’s eventual lapse into sentimentality. Redemption through friendship and psychoanalysis is the typical prescription for a character as acerbic and unfeeling as Guy, and while the script doesn’t dodge that cliche entirely, the two terrifically matched central performances are winning enough to warmly invite the viewer’s emotional investment the whole way.
Looking nothing like the genial family-man types he played in “Arrested Development,” “The Change-Up” and “Identity Thief,” Bateman gives a master class in tetchy verbal fireworks here, the character’s superior spelling skills seeming a logical extension of his ferocious command of language. As one person after another confronts him in order to take him down a peg, Guy’s comebacks are savage, instinctive and priceless, and much of the satisfaction of “Bad Words” derives from the sight of someone sounding off in such brilliant, uncensored fashion against this carefully stage-managed world of sneering officials and self-righteous parents (including one played with particular relish by Rachael Harris).
Young Chand should have many more bigscreen opportunities following this endearingly wide-eyed turn, his long, clearly enunciated sentences overlapping with Bateman’s vicious sidelong jabs to highly entertaining effect. Hahn gives an alert, vigorous turn in a somewhat functional audience-surrogate role, while Philip Baker Hall brings a unique note of slightly sinister gravity to his performance as one of the competition’s proud founding fathers.
The particulars of the spelling bee itself are persuasively rendered by an unexpectedly fine production package, resulting in a richly textured backdrop that comes across as more than just a target of satire. Veterans of such elite academic tournaments will delight in the various details and protocols, and the fact that the event is being nationally televised allows for all manner of graphic bells-and-whistles that encourage viewers to play along (it’s helpful to have the answer onscreen when a contestant is stuck with a word like “floccinaucinihilipilification”). Ken Seng’s moody, amber-tinted HD lensing adds visual luster, and Tatiana S. Riegel’s edits have a bracing precision and sharpness, bringing the film in at a speedy 89 minutes.