Jason Bateman has become so good at playing milquetoasts that there’s something immediately bracing about watching him play an actual jerk in Bad Words. As Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old taking advantage of a loophole in the rules for the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, the actor turns his characteristic deadpan into a weapon: He maintains his even-keeled delivery, and hurls agonizingly cruel insults at the world — about people’s vaginas, their ethnicities, their weight. The film itself is uneven, but it’s kind of awesome seeing Bateman act so vile.
Directed by Bateman himself from a screenplay by Andrew Dodge, and billed as a zany comedy — Bad Santa for high-achievers — Bad Words is a lot darker and more twisted than you might expect. Why is Trilby even here? What would possess a grown man to lay orthographic waste to a bunch of nervous middle schoolers? Though he doesn’t at first tell us what his aim is, Guy does reveal early on that he has a plan. It’s just not a good one; “I’m not that good at thinking things through,” he tells us, in voice-over. In the meantime, Guy pisses off parents, organizers, and the kids — save for one, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a sweet but sheltered Indian-American boy who brings out both the best and the worst side of our antihero. Together, they sort of bond, as they prank motorists, put live lobsters in toilets, and solicit prostitutes.
When he’s not with Chaitanya, Guy spends time with a vaguely neurotic journalist (Kathryn Hahn) who is chronicling his bizarre journey and occasionally having really shameful, messy sex with him; she’s both his confidante and his muscle, intervening with threats of lawsuits whenever spelling-bee organizers try to bar Guy from attending. As a result, the organizers are reduced to finding more clandestine ways of getting rid of Guy — which includes, at one point, rigging the contest so that he has to spell ridiculous words like floccinaucinihilipilification while other kids get gimmes like nougat and conjecture. It’s funny stuff, provided you find something inherently funny about the idea of spelling bees in the first place; part of the pleasure of a movie like this is just watching the sight of people on a stage spelling words like antidisestablishmentarian and absquatulate.
Not knowing exactly where Bad Words is going puts us in an interesting moral limbo — almost as if Guy’s weirdness was just an existential fact for the world to deal with, and not a means to a more mundane end. The film is at its best when it’s hovering aimlessly without any apparent purpose in the world of this embittered, misanthropic little man. As the flustered organizers and the agitated parents take increasingly desperate measures, the film seems to flirt with a Clockwork Orange–like study in competing outrages: What’s worse, Guy’s determined dickishness, or the evil hoops everyone else jumps through to try and get rid of him? At other times, you sense that the film wants to confront Guy’s own sense of entitlement: By competing with these kids, is he trying to claim a childhood he never had thanks to his own shitty upbringing?
For a while, the film’s inability to focus winds up working partly to its advantage, as it gives us leave to wonder about (and wander amid) its off-kilter character interactions and its spirited, confrontational weirdness. You almost wish the movie would never quite make sense. But alas, screenplays nowadays always have to add up to something, and so make sense Bad Words eventually does. And while the resolution of Guy Trilby’s journey winds up being a reasonably touching one, you may find yourself yearning for the vulgar nuttiness of earlier scenes, when his plan was a lot less clear and this strange little movie more entertainingly unhinged.