All those years of packing his resume with “long suffering” reasonable guys forced to do the slow burn when confronted by irrational family, bosses or identity thieves must have gotten to Jason Bateman.
He unloads that past with his directing debut, a film about an uncensored, unfiltered, eternally angry 40-year-old who is more “no burn” than slow burn. In “Bad Words” he is a “Bad Santa” on his own quixotic “Little Miss Sunshine” quest, a man with issues who refuses to explain those issues to those he insults every step of the way.
Guy Trilby proofreads product warranties for a living. But he’s taken time off for a shot at winning The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee and its $50,000 first prize.
Yeah, it’s a contest for kids. But he’s found a loophole. And no amount of abuse from contest organizers or the mercenary parents of his fellow spellers can dissuade him. Every meeting with such folks becomes a debate, then a shouting match.
You don’t want to insult him. Because not only is Guy an orthographic whiz, he is seriously misanthropic. He gets personal in a flash, a rude and crude man operating with a short, profane fuse.
He won’t discuss his reasons for pursuing this embarrassing fool’s errand, not even with the journalist (Kathryn Hahn, hilarious) whose website is sponsoring his entry.
And then this adorable Indian-American boy of 10 (Rohan Chand), a fellow contestant, forces his way into Trilby’s field of view.
He insults the child at every turn, calling young Chaitanya “swami” and “Slumdog,” trash-talking him before contests.
Bateman, working from an Andrew Dodge script, fills this short, corrosive comedy with “Oh no he didn’t” moments. Guy is poker-faced as he plays evil mind-games with the poor kids unlucky enough to sit next to him on the spelling bee stage. Guy is shameless, even as he seems to warm just a little to the boy who insists on being his friend – taking him for reckless rental-car rides, teaching him to cuss, to drink, when to tip or not tip a hooker.
Allison Janney is the Queen Bee who vows to stop Trilby from ruining this hallowed event, and Philip Baker Hall is well-cast as the elderly wordsmith who long ruled the roost at the Golden Quill, now a spelling bee PBS commentator.
The best moments let Bateman and veteran funnywoman Hahn (TV’s “Parks & Recreation”) go toe to toe and blow for blow in scenes that take their relationship from testy co-dependency to sexual without missing a malevolent beat.
The film is full of sharp observations about academic contests today, with Tiger Moms and tough-love Dads browbeating the kids from the wings. The ending is kind of a tap-out, but Bateman keeps this clipping along, maintaining the mean streak and potty mouth that make “Bad Words” the dirtiest and funniest comedy of the new year.