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.