“Bad Words” is a measure of how Jason Bateman has become a comedy mainstay. A mostly forgotten former child star a decade ago, Bateman was sprung from sitcom purgatory by “Arrested Development” and a string of funny movie roles.
How confident is Bateman about his current status? Enough to play a totally despicable character. He also directs “Bad Words” — his feature directing debut — as though deciding to go all in on this very black comedy.
The despicable character in question is Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old loser enrolled in a spelling bee. Having spotted a loophole in the rules (contestants must not have graduated a certain grade level, which Guy never did), he’s using an apparently photographic memory to mow down his much younger competition.
Much of the movie takes place during the big national spelling bee, as organizers (Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall among them) try to get Guy bounced from the show. Meanwhile, Guy is trailed by a reporter (Kathryn Hahn), whose employer is sponsoring Guy’s run to the top.
The big inspiration here seems to be “Bad Santa,” that foul-mouthed portrait of a hilariously rotten individual. Even when Andrew Dodge’s script makes Guy become best buds with a 10-year-old spelling rival (Rohan Chand), there’s at least one surprise in store about how this is going to play out.
The contrived premise means you either roll with the idea of a grown man being allowed to get this far in a big-time spelling bee or you reject it outright. If you go with it, the movie sort of works, but almost exclusively as a showcase for Bateman and Hahn.
Hahn has been showing off her zany skills in a series of supporting parts in movies like “Step Brothers”; then last year she got a bravura starring role in the funny/serious indie “Afternoon Delight.” Her character dislikes Guy but can’t stop sleeping with him, and her scenes with Bateman have the confident rhythm of two comedy experts.
As for Bateman, he’s got his calm, deadpan style very much in place — laced here with a simmering hostility that (while generally played for laughs) is effective. The movie runs out of ingenuity a half-hour before it ends, but it would be interesting to see what Bateman does with another, less acidic subject in his directing career.
“Bad Words” (two and a half stars)
A 40-year-old man (Jason Bateman) exploits a loophole to enroll in a children’s spelling bee—and yes, he is a completely despicable character. This very black comedy works for a while in a “Bad Santa” sort of way, with the main draw being the comedy expertise of Bateman (who also directed) and Kathryn Hahn.
Rating: R, for language, nudity, subject matter
Opening: Friday at Alderwood Mall, Meridian.