It may be called “Bad Words,” but Jason Bateman’s directorial debut is more about pushy parents than it nerdy kids.
Using the national spelling bee as his stage, he shows how those obnoxious moms and dads force their pre-teens into a world of headaches, heartaches and heartburn as they battle to be the nation’s best guesser.
His secret weapon? A 40-year-old proofreader (played by Bateman) who’s determined to take advantage of Rule 24 and enter the competition through a loophole: He’s a grade school dropout who didn’t complete the eighth grade.
Naturally, the parents are, um, mad and want to do everything they can to keep him out of the contest. The Golden Quill’s organizers aren’t pleased either, relegating him to a storage closet for a hotel room.
Undaunted (he has something to prove), Bateman’s Guy Trilby pushes on, using every dirty trick in the book to win. When the kids seem a little too successful, he offers verbal discouragement. When officials give him the worst words in the book, he battles back and spells them.
A reporter (Kathryn Hahn) is on his tail, eager to expose the man’s motivation.
While it’s not too hard to figure out what’s afoot, Bateman (the actor) has such fun, it’s sad to see the truth come out.
Even better, he enjoys such a great relationship with a fellow speller (the overly charming Rohan Chand) it’d be great to see the two on a road trip.
Still, “Bad Words” is aptly titled. Trilby uses all of them and isn’t afraid to let his new friend share a few, too.
The film takes an unnecessary turn here and there (Trilby calls his friend “Slumdog”) and often aims its sharpest points at the wrong people.
When it’s sending up the vicious men and women who live and die by their dictionaries, “Bad Words” is on firm ground. But when it shifts focus to the kids who are mere pawns, it maybe goes too far.
Bateman, however, knows where to find some very delicious laughs. He gets great mileage out of Allison Janney (as the bee’s grande dame) and more than a few good snickers from Hahn, who’s willing to do just about anything to one-up anyone within earshot.
Chand isn’t all that innocent, either (you’ll see what we mean), but he does hold his own with one of the meanest men on Bateman’s resume.
Because he’s so willing to do anything to serve his story, Bateman could be entering a career phase that’s his best yet.
He’s not just another hapless sap. He’s a giant sequoia willing to fall on anyone.