Jason Bateman has made a successful career out of playing the straight man. From "Arrested Development" through recent big-screen work like "Identity Thief," the actor excels at playing the mild-mannered nice guy, exasperated by the insanity that surrounds -- and frequently threatens to overwhelm -- him. The role suits him so well that it's an unexpected delight to find that he's chosen to toss this go-to persona aside to play the foul-mouthed Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old misanthrope who, for reasons known only to himself, has chosen to start crashing children's spelling bees. All this to say, it's not entirely shocking to find that "Bad Words," which marks Bateman's directorial debut, has a soft, chewy center hidden beneath its sour exterior.
Exploiting a loophole in contest rules that stipulate that contestants must not have passed beyond an 8th grade level, Trilby--a middle-school dropout--has the grounds to enter into the competition, but also the intelligence that allows him to remain there and earn his way toward his ultimate goal of making it to the nationals. Trilby is accompanied by Jenny (a frumped-up Kathryn Hahn), a journalist whose online publication serves as Guy's sponsor while she attempts to write a story about him. Mostly she's there to look on with embarrassment as her companion angers parents, bullies children, and harasses officials, and in between Jenny engages in occasional bouts of hostile sex with her subject. It's never entirely clear why her character would have stuck with Guy as long as she has, or how her small, mostly unknown blog has the monetary resources to bankroll Trilby's mission. Despite strong performances from both actors, their pairing is the weakest aspect of the film.
Much more successful is Trilby's unlikely and uneasy friendship with a 10-year-old fellow competitor named Chaitanya, played by scene-stealing newcomer Rohan Chand. Seemingly resistant to the constant stream of invectives spewed at him, Chaitanya latches on and won't let go no matter how hard Guy tries to shake him off. Chand and Bateman have a fun, easy rapport, and it's clear rather quickly that the kid is bound to soften Guy up, at least a little.
Bateman proves himself a talented director; he keeps things moving with a trim running time while also managing to inject a fair amount of style into the film. It's a welcome change of pace in the era of bloated, flat-looking comedies. The film's script, written by Andrew Dodge, strikes a delicate balance. Guy acts like an asshole, but always with some sense that he's not truly taking pleasure in the reactions he's evoking. This lends an interesting dynamic to the film as it becomes obvious that his reasons for doing what he's doing, and which serve as the film's underlying mystery, are centered in real hurt, anger, and pain. Thankfully, this doesn't make the sight of Bateman making children cry any less hilarious to watch. Bateman makes use of his expert comedic timing to intimidate and manipulate the kids (and adults), and maybe it's just the fact that I'm not a parent, but man, does tormenting children to tears make for comedy gold.