In his directorial debut, Bad Words, Jason Bateman plays 40-something Guy Trilby, a misanthrope who finds a loophole in the National Spelling Bee competition, allowing him to enter. In his route to the top, Bateman bullies, teases, and belittles fellow competitors, who are just a fraction of his age. Along the way, he meets Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a young Indian boy also competing in the tournament. They forge an unlikely friendship, with one especially memorable montage of Guy and Chaitanya out on the town, wreaking havoc and playing pranks on unsuspecting victims.
Chand shines under Bateman’s direction, playing Chaitanya with impressive confidence for only a 10-year-old. He easily plays off the racist jokes and humiliation directed his way, and he makes Bateman’s job a lot easier. You can’t help but think, however, that Bateman has cast Chand to do just that, as he often exploits Chand’s racial identity for a good laugh, at one point telling him to “turn [his] curry hole around” and, after a particularly violent episode, tells the young competitor that “your boy Gandhi wouldn’t like that.”
Also notable is Kathryn Hahn’s performance as a reporter who sponsors Trilby in the tournament, and who occasionally engages in sexual-albeit utterly unromantic-encounters with Trilby. Hahn, like Bateman, is familiar with this comedic supporting role, having played it many times over (see: Step Brothers or How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days). Her strange sexual interactions with Trilby provide some laughs, however cheap they may be.
Under his own direction, Bateman capitalizes on what he does best: impeccable comedic timing and charm. The funniest moments are often the most outrageous, most notably in his exchanges with the other contestants. In his first competition, the slightly chubby boy sitting next to Trilby asks him, “Why are you up here, loser?” He replies, “Your chair called me for help.” The humor in making children cry is something Bad Wordscleverly exploits, whether it’s tricking a young girl into thinking she has gotten her period, or convincing an innocent nerd that his mom has been sleeping around.
What Bateman’s film lacks is any sense of originality. The generic performances and his inability to escape a corny and predictable storyline undermine the film’s promising premise. He underestimates the intelligence of his viewers, notably in the unnecessary voiceover explaining parts of the film that the audience has already figured out themselves. Bateman also manages to downplay his finest feature in films-his innate ability to gain the audience’s sympathy. Instead, he comes across as excessively mean-spirited and too often straddles the line of what is and is not appropriate, even for its R-rating.
While the last third is chock-full of corny sentimentality and has an ending that can be seen coming from a mile away, Bateman successfully navigates through these cliches by playing on strengths. Had it been any longer than its brisk 89 minutes, Bad Words would have risked imposing on its viewers. Its quick time and easy-rolling humor, however, let it pass by for what it is-a couple of laughs and some redeeming but easily forgettable performances.