As you can guess, Jason Bateman’s directorial debut Bad Words is filled with bad words: Bateman plays Guy Trilby, an alleged grown-up with a photographic memory and a lousy attitude who bullies his way into a national spelling bee for grade-schoolers.
As he’s knocking ’em dead on the spelling-bee circuit, executing words like floccinaucinihilipilification with aplomb, he’s also spraying his ill will and nasty vocabulary every which way like a surly tomcat.
No one escapes his acid verbal jet-stream: Not Allison Janney’s prim-and-proper bee coordinator, nor Kathryn Hahn as the journalist who, for no clear reason, has chosen to accompany him on this bitter adventure.
Bad Words might have been moderately enjoyable if Trilby were just a really bad guy. But there’s a reason for his miserable behavior — in case you haven’t guessed, this is a journey toward redemption.
Bateman, as both director and star, digs his heels in too hard to make the movie’s points, using lots of ho-hum close-ups and wriggly camera work along the way.
The foul-mouthed insults that litter Andrew Dodge’s screenplay aren’t even that clever: At one point Trilby, who has reluctantly accepted the friendship of an adorable bee competitor of South Asian descent (played, winsomely, by Rohan Chand), asks the kid if he has a girlfriend: “You can’t find one little chicken tikka to get your shrimp tandoori up in?” If that’s supposed to be shocking, it isn’t — but it isn’t funny, either.
Bateman seems to be looking over his shoulder to make sure we’re getting the gags, but all he’s come up with is a Bad Santa wannabe, with none of that movie’s glorious Rabelaisian spirit. How do you spell relief?