If you take a meeting with a movie star, eventually they’ll reveal that what they really want to do is direct. Jason Bateman has been a good solider in so many bad movies (Exhibit A: “Identity Thief”), he’s earned the right to express his own vision. The surprise of “Bad Words” is that the vision is so dark.
Bateman usually plays the sane center of a screwy universe, but in his directorial debut, he has flipped the script. While he hinted at a dark side in the body-switch comedy “The Change-Up,” this role doesn’t involve hocus-pocus. Bateman’s character, Guy Trilby, is both a foul-mouthed bully and a smarty pants. He’s especially smart about spelling, and he has found a loophole that allows him to compete in the national schoolkid spelling bee at age 40.
Guy’s sponsor is an obscure online-news site, but even amorous reporter Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) can’t get him to divulge his motivation. When Guy wins a regional competition in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, he flees the angry parents and flies with Jenny to the finals in LA.
Although he clashes with tournament director Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney) and is forced to sleep in a hotel broom closet, he doubles his efforts to sabotage the younger contestants. His trickiest challenge is Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), the relentlessly friendly tween whose high-pressure parents have deposited him in an adjoining hotel room. When insulting the boy as a “slumdog” doesn’t work, he tries to corrupt him with junk food, booze and a Hollywood hooker.
“Bad Words” is often very funny, thanks to Bateman’s brick-wall malevolence and screenwriter Andrew Dodge’s inventively rude dialogue. But as in the kindred flick “Bad Santa,” a needy kid has a softening effect on a curmudgeon, and before the dismissal-bell rings, “Bad Words” tries to offer a life lesson along with the spelling lesson. Along with the undistinguished visuals, the fuzzy focus in the storytelling earns the director a demerit.
Bateman is already a star pupil of comedy, and he could earn an honor’s diploma in filmmaking if he learns to spell singularity.
What “Bad Words” • Three stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:28 • Content Crude and sexual content, strong language and brief nudity