Like that of the Middle American butter-carving contest in 2012's "Butter
" and high school student body election in 1999's "Election
," the insular world of competitive spelling bees are a cutthroat business. Throw in an unapologetic, foul-mouthed 40-year-old contestant surrounded by middle school spelling whizzes and their overbearing parents, and the culminating satire is ripe for the picking. "Bad Words" is roughly as inhibited as a college freshman letting loose at his or her first raucous mixer, but the script by first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge is also never as outrageous or clever as it thinks it is. He and Jason Bateman, making his directorial debut, have seemingly used 2003's "Bad Santa
" as their central narrative blueprint, the unlikely friendship between a mean-spirited middle-aged man and a lonely young boy the catalyst for part-raunchy, part-sentimental exploits. It is all just a little too familiar and forced to make a lasting impression.
Much to the consternation of parents, judges and the reigning committee of the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) has found a loophole in the rulebooks that states anyone can participate who failed to pass the eighth grade. It is bad enough, they think, that he participated and won for his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, but it is downright sacrilegious that he would dare travel to L.A. for the country-wide championships determined to beat the pants off a bunch of sixth and seventh graders. Accompanied by Internet journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), also posing as his sponsor, Guy struts into the bee with something to provesomething yet to be exposed. As exasperated Golden Quill director Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) tries to reassure the masses while thwarting her overage contestant, Guy finds an unexpected friend and ally in 10-year-old competitor Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). Left by his strict, neglectful parents at a different hotel from their own, Chaitanya latches onto him, finding charm in his foul-mouthed, belligerent demeanor. Guy has no interest in being bugged by a kid, but this one knows how to break through his defenses. Happily tagging along for a night of booze, hookers and petty theft doesn't hurt, either.
"Bad Words" is a showcase for Jason Bateman (2013's "Identity Thief
"), not only in front of the camera but also as a first-time filmmaker. His work in the latter role is proficient, particularly for an indie pic relatively small in focus. Relying upon the strength of the writing and ensemble to light the way, Bateman leads a game cast in a project that feels a bit stale, like a formerly unreleased relic from the late-1990s/early-'00s that has just been dusted off and put out. The outrageousness of its content and the would-be corruptible use of a child for comedic purposes gets a few chuckles, but mostly strikes as passé. Guy's quick and sneaky exploits at the bee, using mind games to throw off his younger opponents, are comparatively fresher, while Dr. Deagan's low-blow attempts at stumping him with ludicrously big words are tartly amusing. What is never explained is how Guy continues to spell the words correctly, no matter what they are, without breaking a sweat. His very intellectual infallibility strips the story of the tension it might have otherwise had.
Jason Bateman goes for it as Guy Trilby, sinking his teeth into an unpleasant, unhappy person who uses his language as his most formidable weapon. Although there is a motive finally given for why the spelling bee means so much to a guy who is otherwise seemingly indifferent to the world around him, the events leading up to this point remain on the foggy side. It is a missed opportunity to more seriously explore his skewed psychology. Perhaps Bateman's biggest triumph is that he makes a prick like Guy ultimately sympathetic. As Jenny, Kathryn Hahn (2013's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
") get saddled with the kind of semi-love interest role Lauren Graham had in "Bad Santa
"that of a woman simultaneously appalled and turned on by Guy's assholic ways. Rohan Chand (2013's "Lone Survivor
") is a cute, disarming natural who plays off Bateman exceedingly well, but the lack of a comeuppance for Chaitanya's terrible, manipulative parents is akin to introducing a villain early on and then letting him off the hook without so much as a slap on the wrist. In supporting turns, Philip Baker Hall's (2012's "People Like Us
") character of tournament president Dr. Bowman increases in importance as the story goes on; Rachael Harris (2012's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
") brings acidic spark to the stereotypical part of an incensed mother who locks horns with Guy, and Allison Janney (2013's "The Way, Way Back
") is disappointingly underused as Dr. Deagan.
The gusto with which "Bad Words" embraces its title cannot be discounted, but the film never equips itself as successfully as it wants to. There are scattered laughs to be had, but they rarely reach their full potential. The serious undertones that come into play toward the climax aren't disingenuous, but they also haven't the impact they should. When the end arrives, Guy Trilby still seems like a sad guy. Having confronted his past but not become a more responsible individual, he thinks nothing of picking Chaitanya up from school and endangering his life in a car-spinning, wheels-screeching joyride. "Bad Words" wants to be acidic yet simultaneously warm the audience's hearts. Here, in this instance, the plot's emitting sense of déjà vu and disparate serious-absurdist juggling act fail to congeal.