Jason Bateman, left, and Rohan Chand star in a comedy about a spelling contest in 'Bad Words.' (Sam Urdank / Focus Features)
“Bad Words” is to spelling bees what “Bad Santa” was to Christmas: crude, rude and painfully funny, with just a dash of sweetness.
Jason Bateman, making his directorial debut, stars as Guy Trilby, a full-grown adult who, after cleverly manipulating some loopholes, manages to get himself seated as a competitor in the nationally televised spelling bee, going up against a bunch of children.
His companion in this awkward endeavor is Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn, keeping the scene-stealing to a minimum), an online journalist who’s trying to figure out why an adult would want to win the national spelling bee while crushing the souls of children.
Actually, Guy does more than crush these kids’ souls. He convinces one kid his mother is having an affair, gets a girl running from the stage in tears, and just generally insults and tortures any kid he can. It’s great fun, with the normally affable Bateman obviously enjoying the role of emotional hit man.
But of course there’s one exception, and that would be young Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a relentlessly positive Indian kid who initially drives Guy crazy and ultimately wins him over as they become odd couple buddies.
Guy’s antics and sheer existence drive the spelling bee’s director (Allison Janney) and national chairman (Philip Baker Hall) bonkers, of course. And he’s none too popular with the parents of all the would-be champions either.
Part of the film’s odd charm is Guy’s complete indifference to his unpopularity, and to pretty much everything. Yet something is driving him.
In truth, the big reveal at the end isn’t as satisfying as the barbed path that leads up to it. But Bateman’s sour demeanor and dry putdowns are priceless. This is twisted, funny stuff.
Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity
Running time: 88 minutes