Jason Bateman has always had the presence of a sweet, sad puppy — he’s the decent guy, the sensitive schnook, the one who winds up a victim because he didn’t stand up for himself. So part of the hilarious shock of Bad Words, Bateman’s directorial debut, is seeing him play a stone-cold misanthropic SOB, the type of man who will calmly tell you to get the hell out of his face, then toss in a gratuitous insult and really mean it, because he’s on a mysterious angry mission. (The insults are first-rate, thanks to Andrew Dodge’s script.) When we initially see Bateman’s Guy Trilby, he’s bullying his way into being a contestant in a local spelling bee. He’s found a loophole that will let him compete: A contestant can’t have graduated from eighth grade before a certain date, and since Guy never graduated, he’s in. But why is he doing this?
Bateman, plastering his face with a dyspeptic frown (he looks like Bono with indigestion), keeps you guessing, and he has a great time dropping racist and sexist zingers, treating everyone — including the kids — like a pest to be swatted away. Guy is accompanied by a reporter (the charming Kathryn Hahn) with whom he has periodic hostile sex. And after the National Spelling Bee puts him up in a hotel supply closet, he gains access to a minibar by making ”friends” with a fellow contestant, a 10-year-old named Chaitanya (the spot-on natural Rohan Chand). The film is a parody of all those sentimental adult/kid Hollywood pairings that ends up sort of doing what they do, only with a more wicked edge.
Guy knows how to spell every word under the sun, and the movie glories in the barbed-wire cynicism of his finesse. Yet we sense, in the film’s central mystery (why is he doing this?), that warmer feelings lurk inside him, and Bateman deserves props for sustaining Bad Words as a little balancing act between sulfurously funny hatred and humanity. A-