Jason Bateman tackles his directorial debut, "Bad Words," with a level of cool control so intent and deliberate that you almost feel like shouting at the screen, "Dude, it’s just a movie! And a bad movie at that! So loosen up a little!"
Alas, it’s only that cool control that saves this film and gives it some slight measure of buoyancy or heft. There’s a certain pleasure, after all, in observing Bateman, who has cast himself as a forty-year-old man named Guy Trilby who exploits a technicality to enter and compete in spelling bees meant for kids. Bateman is clearly a smart guy; so is Trilby, who, despite his brains, has about as much social grace as a wrecking ball.
Indeed, it’s with the aplomb of a wrecking ball that Trilby crosses the country from one contest to the next, often with a buzzing swarm of enraged parents hot on his heels, winning his way to the televised national competition -- the Golden Quill, established and overseen by a dignified professor of linguistics played by Philip Baker Hall.
Trilby is an unfriendly sort, defensively crude and not about to apologize for it. Bateman plays him with appropriate detachment and scorn: Even the character’s name comes over as a middle finger tossed off with a cold smirk. Trilby has got more than a spelling bee running riot in his bonnet, but no one -- not even the reporter, Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), who’s traveling with him to get the inside story -- can figure out what makes him tick. That’s saying something, considering that Guy and Jenny, while conversing in a raw manner that verges on contempt, can hardly keep their hands off each other.
Guy might have met his match once he reaches the Golden Quill, and it’s not in the person of Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), the spelling bee’s national director, who is all too capable of treating Trilby with just as much scorn as he heaps on others. No, it’s smiling, sweet little Chaitainya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a ten-year-old competitor, who just might break through Trilby’s shell.
The film takes crude buddy humor to a creepy new place, with Trilby and Chopra (whom Trilby addresses with racist endearments like "Chai Latte") jumping into an extended sequence during which they raise all holy Hell the evening of the contest’s first day. Maybe boozing, booby trapping toilets with live lobsters, and paying street workers to show off their breasts is all a matter of blowing off competitive steam, but it seems more than a little out of place -- even in the movies -- when the tag-team of juvenile pranksters involved has such a glaring age difference. I mean, look: This isn’t a buddy movie in which two adults make jackasses of themselves. It’s an exercise in which an adult demonstrates a juvenile level of comportment and, rather than modeling respectable behavior to a kid, essentially teaches him that it’s cool to be an overgrown child.
Just as distasteful are the mind games Trilby plays to throw other youthful contestants off their game. He tells one kid an elaborate story about bedding the kid’s mother (and produces a pair of women’s underpants as evidence); he congratulates another on "the arrival of her womanhood," referring to a fraudulent menstrual bloodstain. The guy... or rather, the Guy... clearly has some issues to work through (what they are becomes too obvious way too early), but the depiction of his conduct skates right past funny and into the realm of the risible. The cops do show up at one point, but it’s not for any of the eminently arrest-worthy things Guy actually does; rather, it’s for a fake complaint phoned in when another character tears a page out of Guy’s own playbook.
Bateman almost has enough dry-tongued charm to pull off this deeply dislikable character -- almost. And he almost makes "Bad Words" watchable -- almost. But Bateman and writer Andrew Dodge step so far over every conceivable line of decency that there’s no redeeming this film, not even in the name of bottom-of-the-barrel laughs. Worse, the substandard level of plotting and the wafer-thin characters sever any suspension of disbelief. This movie is D-U-M, dumb -- ding it.