In Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words, the spelling-bee circuit is an oppressively dull stretch of hell, populated with parents who range from the overprotective to the outright conniving. So, it’s naturally curious that Guy Tilby (Bateman), a reasonably put-together, middle-aged proofreader, would choose to exploit a loophole in the bee bylaws to compete against children and subsequently face their parents’ indignation. The personal reasons for Guy’s crusade are revealed at the climax, as one might expect, but the answer isn’t nearly piercing or distinct enough to excuse how incessantly the filmmakers tease out this ultimately benign mystery.
It’s unfortunate, because there are fleeting moments in this sour comedy that work, such as when Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), an online reporter who bankrolls Guy’s entrance fees and lodgings, and occasionally sleeps with him, must fend off an F.B.I. agent’s would-be sly advances. Too often, however, the film defers to Guy’s prickly talent for the offensive comeback. Our antihero responds to the gripes of the bee’s higher-ups (Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney) with some choice homophobic remarks, and his kinship with Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a seemingly friendly pre-adolescent and fellow competitor, is predicated on the young boy’s ability to shrug off Guy’s racially charged insults (he calls him a “slumdog” and also tells him to shut his “curry hole”). Women and the obese get off lighter, but nevertheless feel the broadside of Guy’s wrathful, crude wit. As if it wasn’t already clear from early on, the film feels a pressing need to reiterate just how terribly unlikable and alienated Guy is, and how little he cares about society at large.
Indeed, when Guy’s reasons for competing become clear, the filmmakers treat the entire revelation of his singular vulnerability with calculated indifference, as if they were over the story’s crux long before we were let in on it. As such, Bad Words comes off as aimless and more than a little smug, even if the strength of the cast lends buoyancy to the production. Guy remains a self-absorbed asshole from beginning to end, but we never get a true idea about how the pain he’s endured has shaped him. The meager comeuppance and hasty notes of sweetness that end the film feel pre-approved rather than organically realized, and they certainly don’t balance out the heedless, giddy crassness that the filmmakers ladle on for the majority of the film’s runtime. In fact, the only element of Bad Words that lingers is the nasty language, which, per the title, may very well have been its whole damn point.