Sarcastic, sanctimonious, salacious, sly, slight and surprisingly sweet, the black comedy of "Bad Words," starring and directed by Jason Bateman, is high-minded, foul-mouthed good nonsense.
I had wondered where Bateman's angry itch would take him next.
The script, by Andrew Dodge, is his first to be produced after many years in the studio trenches, and it's a good match of man and material. As an actor — whether a victim trying to even the score with Melissa McCarthy in "Identity Thief" or the ruthless top firing dog in "Up in the Air" — Bateman always brings an edge to his work. He's never quite as likable as, say, Paul Rudd, but the comic sensibility of his films is more biting for it.
At times "Bad Words" has a tendency to over-bite — a series of extremely expressive sex scenes comes to mind. But Bateman seems to sense it and pulls back before patience runs out.
The movie zeros in on the bizarre world of spelling bees, a petri dish of strange behavior between the bright kids and the zealous parents. The filmmaker has surrounded himself with a solid cast of distinctive comic and character actors, including Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone and Philip Baker Hall. He keeps a brisk pace. And he's willingly handed the entire game to the wonderful and wise-beyond-his-10-years Rohan Chand. Smart move.
If you happened to catch the Oscar-nominated 2002 documentary "Spellbound," which Dodge says partly inspired the story, you know that the National Spelling Bee competition is white-knuckle time for the incredibly smart preteen set.
The idea of having an adult, Guy Trilby (Bateman), crashing the after-school party as a contestant is almost funny enough. Why a 40-year-old would do such thing — the spelling bee authorities don't make it easy — becomes the mystery to be solved. The words chosen for the contestants to spell are fabulous. Some of the more obscure choices require nearly all of the letters in the alphabet and leave one to wonder if they are real words.
But I d-i-g-r-e-s-s.
Reporter Jenny Widgeon (Hahn) shadows Guy on the spelling bee circuit. She foots the bill in exchange for exclusive rights to Guy's story, assuming he will ever tell it. Jenny and Guy are also having a fling, though it is difficult to tell who likes whom the least. She, in other words, doesn't offset his less-than-charming persona.
Indeed, the film's toughest challenge is getting anyone to care about anything that happens to Guy. Bitter, caustic, depressed, antisocial, an intruder in the bee world, it's as if he has never met a human — adult or child — he didn't verbally take down. This is a ball on which Bateman's antihero must balance for most of the film, and he does it remarkably well. Not quite enough to make you root for him, but enough not to leave you in the parents' camp, actively hoping to destroy him.
The film jells around the national competition, the Golden Quill. It is run by the u-n-c-t-u-o-u-s Dr. Deagan (Janney) and headed by the imperious Dr. Bowman (Hall). They are doing their best to disqualify him, but Guy knows exactly how to skirt the rules.
An adorably polite young lad named Chaitanya Chopra (Chand), one of the kid competitors, latches on to Guy and won't let go. Their relationship, with Guy fighting it every step of the way, becomes the heart of "Bad Words." As 10-year-old Chaitanya digs in, Guy begins to soften. Until a rift puts the boy and his would-be friend at odds, and by this time the spelling bee title is on the line.
The chemistry between Chand and Bateman is infectious as the words get harder, the field gets smaller and the backstabbing and spelling-bee politicking shift into high gear. The night they play hooky — seedy bars, shared shots and hookers are involved — is completely inappropriate fun.
In fact, be prepared for many of the kids to get mercilessly skewered by the 40-year-old who clearly knows better.
The sets are modest and minimal, the drama is basically split between hotel rooms and spelling bee stages. Falcone comes in to play as a commentator. The camerawork is occasionally shaky, unintentional it would seem. Sometimes the close-ups are too close to see the pranks going on around the margins. And the plot periodically threatens to go off the rails. The kind of rough edges that might be forgiven the first time out.
As tight-lipped as Guy is about his reasons for seeing this thing through to the end, enough clues are dropped along the way that you may solve the mystery before the big reveal scene.
Unlike the boisterous rest of the film, it is understated and touching, but Bateman doesn't linger there long. Soon enough Guy is up to no good again. S-w-e-e-t.
'Bad Words' - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity)
Running time: 1:29