“Bad Words,” the directing debut of “Arrested Development” star Jason Bateman, walks a familiar tightrope: trying to make a protagonist who is an unapologetic asshole palatable to the audience. The movie, about a middle-aged man who exploits a loophole to compete in a children’s spelling bee, employs various means of doing this, from framing the narrative with a voiceover explaining his, slight, regrets over his actions, establishing a motive to his behavior in an unhappy childhood, and most importantly, making us laugh.
But you might not laugh as much as you think you will, based on the ads and Bateman’s comic pedigree, but that’s not because it’s a failed comedy so much as it is a mixture of genres. There are funny scenes to be sure, mostly involving Guy Trilby (Bateman) puncturing the self-righteousness of pushy parents with exquisitely venomous one-liners and the various dirty tricks Bateman employs to sabotage other spellers, but these scenes aren’t frequent enough to call the movie a traditional comedy. Before the film’s ending veers into dramatic territory, most of the story is structured like a mystery – why would a grown man do this? Why is he expending so much time and effort simply to humiliate children?
These questions torment the rest of the characters, from Jenny Widgeon (a mostly wasted effort by the funny Kathryn Hahn), a journalist who accompanies Trilby for the story, to the parents of rival spellers, and the administrators of the competition, but Trilby keeps his cards close to his chest as he progresses through the bee circuit to the national finals. Unlike most movies that poke fun at subcultures, “Bad Words” does not end with Trilby finding a new appreciation for the strange pursuit. Rather, the movie has nothing but scorn for the world of spelling bees, which it portrays as a domain of unhappy children and infuriating parents.
Only one character in the movie is able to (somewhat) crack Trilby’s harsh exterior, a speller at the national level named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who ill-advisedly started spelling to earn attention and approval from other kids at school and his cold, domineering father. Though Trilby does everything he can to keep Chopra away from him, he is eventually won over by Chopra’s astounding earnestness and desire to please; Chopra is both a foil to Trilby’s current self and a reminder of his neglected past self. “Bad Words” is a pleasingly idiosyncratic effort from first-time director Bateman. Underneath the amoral exterior, it’s about the damage that parents do to their children and the strange lengths that children will go to for their affection.