Jason Bateman plays a 40 year old who exploits a loophole to crash school spelling bees. Credit: Sam Urdank/Focus Features
'Bad Words' Director: Jason Bateman Stars: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
Once upon a very long time ago, movie jerks were allowed to be jerks. W.C. Fields played cantankerous alkies who hated children and dogs and everyone, but there was never a scene where he was punished or forced to recant. Indeed, his a—holishness was his salvation. Today, real a—holes — with the exception of Ron Burgundy — are supposed to be crying on the inside. "Bad Words" doesn't want to be that movie. It's so sure it isn't that it even embraces cliches of the genre, as if it wanted to walk up to the line to show that it won't walk over it.
Sadly, it is that kind of movie; it clumsily falls over the line into a kind of passive-aggressive bathos. It starts off well. Jason Bateman, who also directed, plays an emotionally remote 40 year old man who has discovered a loophole in the rules for school spelling bees. For reasons not immediately explained, he has decided to exploit it. As we meet him he’s clobbering rows of junior geniuses without any apparent remorse.
Alas, there’s that pesky question of motivation. Despite periodically occupying the narration track, Bateman’s Guy Trilby keeps shtum about why he’s ruining the dreams of hyper-protected brats, as if just because that might make for a funny movie wasn’t a good enough reason. The longer he dangles the possibility of a big reveal, the more it becomes clear that when it comes it’s going to be gruesomely sentimental, ruining any of the good will accrued.
Of course, “adult beats kids at spelling bees” could never fuel an entire movie. It could fuel a short one, though, and “Bad Words” takes apparent glee in being “Bad Santa,” but with a more calm and calculated scrooge at the center. The script may promise an emotional revelation to come, but Bateman plays him cold — as tightly wound as Michael Bluth on “Arrested Development,” only more prone to casual sexism and racism, in addition to being able to breeze through words like “floccinaucinihilipilification.”
But filling space with a looming unveiled mystery isn’t terribly creative. It fares better with another hoary-sounding subplot, where Guy unwittingly befriends an excitable Indian kid (Rohan Chand, appealing without, amazingly, being precocious) who persists in befriending him, and is rewarded by being exposed to beer and prostitutes (and being called “Slumdog”). But even that feels hand-me-down (from “Bad Santa,” again), even if it has more meat on it than Guy’s wobbly relations with an insecure and, luckily for him, perpetually randy reporter played by the great Kathryn Hahn.
Then again, even that subplot has moments of charm, as does the rest of the film. Bateman the actor nails playing an unrepentant jerk, who never lets down his guard, not even to the audience. But as a director he can’t find a tone that doesn’t wobble between dry humor and over-seriousness, all before arriving at the obligatory change of heart it seemed too cool to have at all.