To bee or not to bee: Jason Bateman crashes a spelling contest as star and director of ‘Bad Words’

Although Bad Words advertises itself with a close-up of Jason Bateman’s mouth forming (possibly foaming) the F-word, it turns out that Focus Features’ irreverent R-rated antic is more about spelling than swearing. In fact, it passes plausibly for the Bad Speller cousin of Bad Santa—another ornery adult battling youngsters a third his age—and Bateman has himself quite a W.C. Fields-day here, putting down the precocious set.

He looks, and looms, a little like Jack Black’s Gulliver when he shows up among a sea of teens and preteens to compete in a national Golden Quill spelling bee, crawling into competition through a loophole that says anyone can enter if he never finished the eighth grade. Through a quirky twist of fate, Bateman’s character qualifies.

A 40-year-old proofreader and misanthrope, he bulldozes and fast-talks his way past the organization’s officials (Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall). There is, of course, A Big Reveal behind his disruptive agenda, and a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) is on the case, but he keeps making her forget the question with a little sexual activity.

Bad Words
speaks directly to Bateman, who never finished high school either—and it speaks loud enough for him to make his movie-directing debut with it. Of course, he missed his graduation because he was a constantly working child actor deep in TV sitcom land (“Silver Spoons,” “Valerie,” “It’s Your Move,” etc.).

“I was really too busy to be concerned about not graduating from high school,” he admits. “I had completed the courses. I just didn’t take the last two tests, so it was a bit of a technicality. It really doesn’t bother me. I have a deep curiosity about a number of things, so I self-educate myself about questions I need answers to.”

For instance: how to direct a film. He started early with that one on the small screen. At 18, while his contemporaries were getting sheepskins, Bateman directed three episodes of his “Valerie” series and became the DGA’s youngest-ever director.

“That was the first time I did any directing, and I directed on and off a tiny bit since then, but I never directed a feature film before, and only one other time did I direct anything single-camera. But I’ve been asking questions and keeping my eyes open.”

Bateman’s first directed feature comes from Andrew Dodge’s first produced script, which was on the 2011 Black List of hot unproduced screenplays, somewhere between Saving Mr. Banks and Grace of Monaco. An agent got them together.

“I told my agent, ‘Don’t wait for me to have free time in my acting schedule to direct something. Pursue opportunities for me as a director all the time.’ He said, ‘I’ll send you a few scripts immediately,’ and he sent three. Bad Words was one of those.

“It had the comedic sensibility that I liked—I skew a little dark and subversive—and it had the kind of size and scope I felt was responsibly moderate for a first film.”

What he probably saw in the script was a perfect role for him—a kid-hating crank with enough charm and wit to get away with it—but he resisted the obvious as long as he could. “I wanted to not play the lead part and just enjoy the directing part of it,” he insists, “but after I took a couple of swings at bigger actors and couldn’t get them, I decided to play the part myself—for two reasons: one, it’s a tricky target to hit, play this character where you gotta be pretty spiteful but likeable, and, two, it would cut down on some of my workload if I didn’t have to direct another actor.”

When it comes to directing yourself in a scene, Bateman subscribes to the Ralph Fiennes women-and-children-first technique: “My part was the last of my concerns. I was much more of the ‘We’ll get to my stuff after everything else, if need be.’”

Was directing as hard as he thought it would be, or was it fun? “Much more on both sides, and that’s why I loved it even more than I thought I would. I was expecting to go absolutely crazy for it, and I couldn’t believe I loved the experience even more.

“The short and the long of it is you basically are creating a world for the audience in all its complications and complexities. You’re responsible for what the audience sees and hears and feels, and a lot of different components are required to execute that.”

Considering where he’s coming from, it’s not surprising that Bateman finessed an excellent showing from ten-year-old Rohan Chand, who plays his primary opponent in the big spell-off, a winsome Indian lad Bateman dismissively tags “Slumdog.”

“If you find someone who is good at what they do—but it’s not necessarily what you had in mind—it’s not a bad thing to help them manage to do what they’re able to do,” Bateman says. “In this case, Rohan played the part in a way that was even more charming and more likeable than it was in the script. The problem with that is, if he’s so likeable and sunny, you’ll hate my character even more for being so nasty to him, so it necessitated my making a little switch in the way I delivered lines to him.

“This happens on every film. You find your character needs to change to fit the way the other actors play their characters. It all has to work together. You can’t decide how you’ll do something till you see how everyone else is going to do their stuff.”

Bateman’s own performance of the mean-spirited Guy Trilby is something of a tightrope walk. “We wanted to make him likeable but not take any of the teeth out of the film,” he explains. “It was tough for me to be nasty to kids. That’s really not me up there. It’s Guy Trilby. He’s got less of a problem with the kids because he’s going through something completely different than I am.” In real life, Bateman and his wife, Amanda Anka (Paul’s daughter), have two daughters, ages seven and two. “I became such a softie when I had my first kid. Now, I cry watching toilet paper commercials.”

His directing debut has left Bateman wanting to do it again. And again. “I’d love to direct full time,” he confesses. “I’m starting another, actually. It’s taken from a book called The Family Fang, about a brother and sister who return home to search for their missing parents. The parents are performance artists, and we don’t know if they are just doing another performance-art piece or if they have been murdered. So the film has a tricky tone that falls somewhere between a comedy and a drama.“

Nicole Kidman plays the sister. His own sister, Justine Bateman, wasn’t an option. “She’s taking classes in computer science at UCLA. It’s a new life, a new career.”

Another family comedy-drama, This Is Where I Leave You, is poised for release. “That’s about a family that comes together to sit shiva for a father who has just passed. It’s not even a Jewish family, but the father found Judaism right before he died, and his dying wish is that we all get together and sit shiva for him for a week. We don’t know what the heck to do—we’re not Jewish, how would we? What it does is bring the family together. All the baggage and garbage and scares resurface when stuck under one roof for a week. It’s obviously very funny and also very dramatic.”

Horrible Bosses 2 just wrapped and will be out for Thanksgiving. “Christoph Waltz is our main nemesis, Chris Pine is his son, and our old nemeses come back as well. It’s a great group, and I think we got something even better than the first one, actually."