Jason Bateman makes his directorial debut with "Bad Words," a dark new comedy about an adult competing against children in a spelling bee. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman filed the following report for NY1.
Jason Bateman has always had the presence of a sweet, sad puppy. He's the nice guy, the sensitive schnook, the one who winds up a victim because he didn't stand up for himself. So part of the hilarious shock of "Bad Words," the first movie Bateman has directed, is seeing him play a stone-cold misanthropic SOB, the sort of man who will calmly tell you to get the hell out of his face, then toss in a gratuitous insult, and really mean it, because he's on a mysterious, angry mission.
When we first see Bateman's Guy Trilby, he's bullying his way into becoming a contestant in a local spelling bee. He has found a loophole that will let him compete: A contestant can't have graduated from eighth grade before a certain date, and since Guy never graduated, he's in.
But why is he doing this? Bateman, plastering his face with a dyspeptic frown - he looks like Bono with indigestion - keeps you guessing, and he has a great time dropping racist and sexist zingers, treating everyone, including the kids, like a pest to be swatted away.
Guy is accompanied by a reporter, played by the charming Kathryn Hahn, with whom he has periodic hostile sex. And after the National Spelling Bee puts him up in a hotel supply closet, he gains access to a mini-bar by making friends with a fellow contestant, a 10-year-old played by the spot-on natural and cute-but-not-cutesy Rohan Chand. The movie is a parody of all those sentimental adult/kid Hollywood pairings that ends up sort of doing what they do, only with a more wicked edge.
Guy knows how to spell every word under the sun, and the movie glories in the bared-wire cynicism of his finesse. Yet we sense, in the film's central mystery - why is he doing this? - that warmer feelings lurk inside him, and Bateman deserves props for sustaining "Bad Words" as a little balancing act between sulfurously funny hatred and humanity.