Film Review: Bad Words

A 40-year-old causes an uproar when he competes in a children's spelling bee. Jason Bateman's directing debut is hit-or-miss, but the hits are outrageous.

Jason Bateman turns on his (mostly) good-guy performances with a vengeance in Bad Words, digging into his role as an unrepentant misanthrope out to disrupt a staid spelling championship. The movie's raunchy interludes are hilarious enough to win over viewers, even if they disguise a surprisingly sentimental heart.

Bateman, also making his feature directing debut, plays Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old proofreader who uses a technicality to force his way into a school spelling bee. Backed by online reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), Trilby makes his way to the finals of the Golden Quill spelling championship in Los Angeles.

There, the bee director (Allison Janney), surrounded by angry parents, vows to get rid of Trilby one way or another. He's assigned a storage closet for a hotel room, and during the contest somehow ends up with impossible words while his competitors breeze through examples like "nougat."

Trilby has no trouble psyching out his pint-sized opponents, and finds it easy to manipulate Jenny, who is trying to turn his story into a feature article. But since this is the first year the contest is being televised on public television, chief Bill Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) will do whatever it takes to eliminate Trilby.

Andrew Dodge's screenplay gets most of its kick from blistering insults that Bateman delivers with the perfect mix of spleen and indifference. The nicest term Trilby has for spelling whiz Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) is "Slumdog."

But the story has several lulls that Bateman as director can't quite work around. And for a movie that positions itself as defiantly raunchy and anti-sentimental, Bad Words reveals a soft, gooey core during its climax.

Given his character's mixed-up motives, Bateman is fascinating, turning invective into performance art. Chand is endearing as Chopra, a friendless but resilient nerd, adding depth to what turns out to be the movie's central relationship. An outstanding Kathryn Hahn manages to turn her distinctly unlikeable character into someone warm and appealing.

Even at 88 minutes, Bad Words feels stretched out, with Bateman sticking to some montages a bit too long. The ratio of hits to misses remains pretty high even as the movie seems to dawdle over scenes that lead nowhere. Viewers out to indulge in Bateman's venom won't mind the slow parts.