Morally reprehensible, socially unacceptable and linguistically...wide-ranging, “Bad Words” is about as far-removed as you can get from a feel-good spelling bee movie.
You might find it a lot funnier, though, depending on your tolerance for behavior that goes beyond typical hard-R rated comedy transgressions to revel in pure meanness — quite a bit of it directed toward middle-school children.
It does help, of course, that most of the kids are pretty nasty pieces of work themselves.
For his feature directing debut (after getting his feet wet with a handful of TV episodes) Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development,” “Identity Thief”) has hired himself to star as Guy Trilby, a grown man who has decided to become America’s champion speller. Outwardly mild and soft-spoken, Guy is in fact seething with anger and utterly indifferent to the contempt of officials, parents and his pre-pubescent competition. Having discovered a loophole in the rules, he’s going to exploit it all the way to the top and being nice en route is not a priority. After winning a regional event in the film’s opening moments, he’s pursued to his car by an outraged, bloodthirsty mob.
And that sets the tone nicely for the hostilities to come. The remainder of “Bad Words” plays out over three days of competition during the first televised national spelling bee in Washington, as Guy ruthlessly eliminates the competition. Not only because he’s unstoppable, orthographically, but because he messes with their 13-year-old minds in ways that are truly heinous. The least of which involves handing the snide, arrogant projected champion a pair of panties, telling the kid his mother left them in his room last night and commiserating with him about the upcoming divorce proceedings.
What’s funny about this? Absolutely nothing, I hasten to say. Though it probably would have gladdened the heart of the great W.C. Fields, who once said he naturally loved children — properly cooked. And there’s something about that sweet-natured face Bateman has that amplifies the comic oomph of every appalling act and every calmly delivered, savagely devastating, graphically obscene insult. And there are plenty of both in “Bad Words.”
Kathryn Hahn is also a plus as a neurotic reporter who’s determined to uncover why Guy is doing this terrible thing (and there is a reason that has nothing to do with spelling or crushing the dreams of children) when she’s not engaging in weird extracurricular activities with him. And so is Allison Janney as the spelling bee director who is not above using dirty tricks of her own to get rid of him. But the film’s secret weapon is Rohan Chand as a lonely contestant who wheedles Guy into becoming his mentor in manly pursuits — boozing, shoplifting, ogling nude women, etc. He gets the film’s two biggest laughs and that’s much to Bateman’s credit.
“Bad Words” isn’t quite as purely disreputable as it goes to great lengths to appear to be. It’s a little too eager to please the hard-R crowd by providing extraneous rude, crude, raunchy bits and a bit too cautious about assuring us, from the very beginning, that some justification for Guy’s behavior is in store. It definitely establishes Bateman as a director to watch, though — capable, intelligent and visually stylish.
As stylish as you can get in a movie that’s not above going for laughs with a lobster in a toilet bowl.