Misogynistic, homophobic, scatological — none of these words come up in any of the spelling bees that take place in Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, but they apply to the film. In the tradition of comedies such as “Bad Santa” and “Bad Grandpa,” in which a foul-mouthed curmudgeon meets his or her match in an irrepressibly good-natured kid, “Bad Words” wins the prize for worst of the bunch. It’s nasty enough, but it isn’t so much funny as it is pathological.
Here the grump is Guy Trilby (Bateman, wearing a perpetual expression of weary contempt), a 40-year-old who for some reason has decided to exploit a loophole in the rules to enter the annual Golden Quill national spelling contest for eighth graders. He has a savant-like talent for the sport, so he mows down the snotty-nosed preadolescent competition in the preliminary rounds, each time rousing the fury of pushy parents. This gives Trilby ample opportunity to display the ornate, obscene, and repugnant put-downs that pass for wit in Andrew Dodge’s script.
Contestants for some reason need to be sponsored by a media outlet. So accompanying Trilby in his quest is Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), an online journalist. She tries to penetrate Trilby’s veneer of barbed hostility to uncover the mysterious reason for his quest and get the story she’s after. Bespectacled, neurotic, nerdy, and needy, Jenny embodies that female stereotype that goes back at least as far as “Thank You for Smoking” (2005) — the woman reporter as slut. Not only does she engage in wackily fetishistic sexual activity with Trilby, but she cracks the case by using the oldest journalistic trick in the book: performing oral sex on a source.
Before that breakthrough, however, there's the requisite irrepressibly optimistic kid. Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) is a 10-year-old fellow contestant whom Trilby affectionately nicknames “Slumdog” after he arrives on the scene to work his magic. Immune to Trilby’s crude, pseudo-clever rejections and put-downs, Chaitanya perseveres. Before you know it, the two are off on a series of curmudgeon-kid bonding montages, in which Trilby introduces Chaitanya to the adult delights of cruel practical jokes, drinking, shoplifting, and paying a prostitute $20 to expose her breasts. Here Bateman confuses cute precociousness for the kind of creepy behavior that borders on child abuse.
Meanwhile, some of Chaitanya’s innocence seems to be rubbing off on Trilby, but it looks inevitable that the pair will have to go head-to-head in the bee’s final round, and someone will have to make the tough choice between being a sociopath or just an ordinary jerk. To their credit Bateman and Dodge have a few twists and a few more opportunities to demonstrate their misanthropy before grinding to the inevitable conclusion. The best way to restore your faith in humanity and movies is to watch Jeffrey Blitz’s uplifting 2002 documentary on the same subject, “Spellbound.”