Jason Bateman spells out his comedic talents in ‘Bad Words’

“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.

More in Life

Shrimp and grits, rendered healthful and Italian? We’re in.

This recipe features a sauce made with olive oil, tomatoes and herbs instead of cheese and cream.

UFO at Paine Field playground was left by an artist — not aliens

The flying saucer at community park in Everett is a cosmic attraction.

Chef James Abbott makes Buck’s peanut butter pie at Buck’s American Cafe in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Fur & Feathers: 4 lovable dogs need homes

Meet Lola, Sadie, Scooter and Chance

Sweet baking tips: How to rescue brown sugar that’s turned hard

Soften the rock solid stuff, then try this recipe for chocolate chunk cookies with sea salt.

Valentina Bogdanova, 74, loves working in the gardens that nearly surround the Bakerview Apartments, where she has lived for 20 years. The units are among 16 affordable and subsidized properties leased to seniors by the Everett Housing Authority. (Dan Bates / The Herald)
As real estate booms, those with fixed-incomes need help

When senior citizens get housing, they are able to ‘age in place.’

Harry Potter exhibit marks 20th anniversary of first book

Many of the things Harry Potter fans thought were imaginary were actually based in fact — or folklore.

Visiting Germany’s Lutherland, birthplace of Reformation

The sights include the church where the first Protestant service took place in 1521.

Can you top ‘Hamilton’? Author Ron Chernow is about to find out

The notable writer’s latest book, published Oct. 10, is a lengthy biography on Ulysses S. Grant.

Most Read