'Bad Words': Bateman's tale of spelling bee bully doesn't d-e-v-e-l-o-p
We've grown so accustomed to Jason Bateman's screen persona as a sweet-natured doormat from projects like Arrested Development and Identity Thief that it's shocking to see him behave scurrilously. Particularly when he does it with the assaultive flair he wields in Bad Words.
In this splenetic comedy (Bateman's directorial debut), he plays a 40-year-old who exploits a loophole in a national spelling bee to compete against adolescents. And before you ask if he's smarter than a fifth grader, rest assured, this weasel can string letters together like nobody's business.
When anyone questions what he's doing (and who wouldn't?), Bateman buries them in vitriol so blue it would make a merchant marine blush. He really doesn't like children. But then, he doesn't like much of anyone, even the spacey reporter (Kathryn Hahn) who is funding his quest.
Bateman gives a wonderfully modulated and natural performance as this ogre. His direction is less inspired, at least visually. Bad Words has a pervasively hazy look, as if the crew spent the whole shoot chain-smoking.
The film should come off the rails when Bateman travels to the nationals and a lonely 10-year-old fellow competitor (Homeland's Rohan Chand) attaches himself to the angry adult despite the constant contempt. That this plot contrivance turns out so charmingly is a testament both to Chand's preternatural appeal and to Bateman's adroit handling of the child actor.
But Bad Words doesn't stay on track for long. The eventual revelation of what is motivating Bateman's absurd crusade makes no sense and twists the film's tone drastically. The final 20 minutes feel like an episode of Glee, floundering around in search of a cheesy, uplifting ending.
Go see Bad Words for its breathtakingly wicked setup. Just be aware the spell wears off. As any spelling-bee veteran can tell you, it's crucially important to bear down on those last few letters.
Bad Words **1/2 (Out of 4 stars)
Directed by Jason Bateman. With Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Kathryn Hahn, Philip Baker Hall. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.
Parent’s guide: R (pervasive profanity, nudity, sex, crude humor)
Playing at: area theaters