If the trailer for “Bad Words” reminds you a lot of the 2003 comedy “Bad Santa,” only set in the world of spelling bees instead of shopping mall Santa Clauses, you’re not alone. But while the comparisons are inevitable – and to a certain extent, completely warranted – “Bad Words” isn’t nearly as crude or edgy as the holiday cult classic. That’s not to say that Jason Bateman’s directorial debut doesn’t have a mean streak, because it relishes every opportunity it gets to be naughty, but the film also feels like it’s playing it safe at times so as to not completely alienate its protagonist. That results in a much less memorable movie, although one that’s still fairly entertaining thanks to Bateman’s involvement on both sides of the camera.
The actor stars as Guy Trilby, a middle-aged loser who discovers a loophole in the spelling bee bylaws permitting anyone who hasn’t graduated past the eighth grade to participate. After winning his regional tournament, Guy is begrudgingly invited to the prestigious Golden Quill national spelling bee, much to the dismay of its buttoned-up administrators (Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall), who feel that their sacred competition has been tainted. Sponsored by an ambitious journalist (Kathryn Hahn) who’s been promised the exclusive rights to tell his story and the reason why he’s risking infamy to win, Guy refuses to be bullied into quitting or distracted in any way. So when precocious 10-year-old contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) tries to befriend him, Guy swats him away like an annoying gnat, eventually giving in to the incredibly persistent loner when he learns that his father has left him (and his hotel minibar) alone for the weekend.
“Bad Words” requires a certain sense of humor to enjoy, because many of the laughs come from Bateman’s character acting like a complete prick. Whether he’s trading jabs with uptight parents or messing with the minds of his adolescent competitors, Guy’s behavior is nothing short of mean-spirited. But while he’s hardly a saint (his motives are not only selfish, but pretty juvenile), he’s also not as bad as he may appear on the surface. Despite the barrage of culturally insensitive nicknames and other colorful language lobbed at Chaitanya over the course of the film, Guy forms a big brother-little brother bond with the Indian boy that helps them both grow up in completely different ways. In fact, their scenes together are the highlight of the movie, particularly a montage where Guy takes Chaitanya on a late-night romp through the city that involves underage drinking, pranking unsuspecting strangers and picking up prostitutes.
Child actors ruin films more often than not, but Chand is excellent as Guy’s pint-sized sidekick/rival – capable of uttering the word “motherfucker” and still be every bit as charming, funny and sweet as when he’s first introduced. However, this is Jason Bateman’s show, and the script by Andrew Dodge (which garnered attention after landing on the 2011 Black List) plays to the actor’s strengths so well that you’d think it was written specifically with him in mind. It’s not easy making a jerk like Guy seem likable, but Bateman does a solid job of pushing boundaries without going too far over the line with his performance. That’s a credit to the actor’s work behind the camera as well, because although the story is a little undercooked (and even a tad repetitive despite running only 88 minutes) and the big “twist” is entirely predictable, “Bad Words” delivers enough hilarious, foul-mouthed mischief to deserve its title.