Review: Spelling bees brought low in funny ‘Bad Words’

03/27/2014 2:25 PM

03/27/2014 6:51 PM

Contributing to the delinquency of minors is a comedy tradition older than W.C. Fields, and dependable as a fart to get laughs. Jason Bateman is smart to go there with his directing debut, “Bad Words.” The toughest part of the gig must be getting parents’ permission to treat their kids this way.

“Bad Words” is a solid addition to the list of movies about bad Santas and teachers previously decimating authority. The target this time is the intellectually sacred institution of spelling bees, particularly preteen geniuses and elitism creating them. What Andrew Dodge’s screenplay – formerly on Hollywood’s “Black List” of admired, unproduced scripts – lacks in satirical sharpness it makes up with blunt insult trauma.

That means lots of jokes about kids’ weight, ethnicity and worse. Explicit intimidation is Guy Trilby’s game, funny in an inappropriate sort of way Mel Brooks might approve. With such reflexively hilarious material, Bateman doesn’t need to be an especially gifted director, and he isn’t. But he keeps “Bad Words” tight (88 minutes, counting end credits) and tasteless, so it works.

Bateman also stars as Guy, a misanthrope whose sole purpose in his obviously miserable life is winning the national (and fictional) Golden Quill spelling bee. Why is his business, so don’t ask. Guy has a loophole to exploit – he hasn’t finished eighth grade, as rules require – and he’s sponsored by a media outlet, a website whose reporter (Kathryn Hahn) wants to know why a grown man is crushing children’s dreams.

Golden Quill’s snobbish president (Allison Janney) and founder (Philip Baker Hall) try reasoning, and then less honorable measures, to make Guy quit, but he’s steadfast and ruthlessly successful. Traveling to the finals in Los Angeles, Guy meets and immediately dislikes Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a sweet-faced competitor too naive to realize he’s being verbally ripped to shreds.

Their mutually beneficial bond – Guy gets to raid the kid’s minibar and Chaitanya learns sex stuff – is the movie’s core, getting mushier as the script gradually loses its nerve. Chand’s eager-beaver demeanor is overacted but fairly irresistible. Guy’s motivation for ruining the bee is a flat means of wrapping up such jagged comedy.

As a director Bateman is confident enough to allow his actors to run with a worthwhile riff – including himself, resulting in a surly change of pace after a career mostly playing put-upon nice guys. “Bad Words” isn’t an entirely auspicious beginning to Bateman’s career behind the camera, but a riotous performance suggests what a wonderful louse he can be.

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