Anybody who has ever met me knows that I enjoy profanity as much as the next person. Probably more, especially during football season, rush hour on the Palmetto and certain episodes of Game of Thrones.
Bad Words likes swearing, too, so you’d think we’d be on the same page. But while the feature film directing debut by actor Jason Bateman gets some of its politically incorrect naughty bits right, it gets too much of the rest of the movie wrong.
Bateman plays against his good-guy Arrested Development type as the relentlessly unpleasant 40-year-old Guy Trilby, who has found a loophole that allows him to compete on the annual spelling bee circuit. Guy clearly has an agenda, but no one knows what it is, including the website reporter (Kathryn Hahn) who’s sponsoring his crusade. So Guy sits among 10- and 12-year-olds in his khaki pants and blue polo shirt, psychologically terrorizing the kids and knocking them one by one out of the competition. This is a guy so self-centered and awful he’s not above squeezing ketchup onto a preteen girl’s chair before she sits down and then congratulating her on her freshly minted womanhood. This is one of the movie’s better jokes, but there’s a crotch-kicking scene to come. Consider yourself warned.
Guy infuriates parents and a top spelling bee official (a mostly wasted Allison Janney), who tries to stump him with tough words (Guy turns out to be a really good speller). Then he meets an adorable little competitor (Rohan Chand) who insists they become friends, and they do, kind of. Or is Guy just playing him? Either way, you know as soon as the kid shows up that the movie will end with Bateman slamming the brakes on Guy’s nastiness. The appearance of Philip Baker Hall as a revered spelling bee figurehead also offers a clue as to where Bad Words is heading, and it’s a place called Obviousland.
Bad Words gets off to a shaky start — literally, in some scenes; as a director, Bateman isn’t quite sure what to do with his camera — but the movie does grow funnier as it goes along without ever truly reaching the twisted hilarity of a Bad Santa.
Part of the problem is reconciling the disagreeable Guy in the first three-fourths of the movie with the suddenly sensitive one who appears in the last 15 minutes. We’ve heard too many grotesque and frankly racist insults to accept that Guy’s sad childhood makes his behavior acceptable. Focusing a comedy on an unrepentent jerk who flips off little kids is a funny idea, and well-placed profanity can be truly hilarious (see Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel for several memorable examples). But the 180-degree spin that insists Guy is a good guy at heart feels cheap and false. And that is b-a-d.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall, Ben Falcone.
Director: Jason Bateman.
Screenwriter: Andrew Dodge.
Producers: Jason Bateman, Jeff Culotta, Ted Hamm, Sean McKittrick, Mason Novick.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 88 minutes. Crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity. Playing in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Sunset; in Broward: Paradise.