After "Little Miss Sunshine" I'm sure there were a thousand wretched copycat scripts written of a quirky family rallying around a little kid entering some sort of contest. There had to have been one at a spelling bee. The cinema Gods smiled upon us and kept them at bay (or, if they were produced, outside my awareness) and that absence made room for this slight, agreeable and just-different-enough comedy.
Jason Bateman (starring in and directing newcomer Andrew Dodge's script) is foulmouthed and mean-spirited, but the dude knows how to spell. We meet him at a qualifying spelling bee for the ballyhooed (and, for the first time, televised) championship, exploiting a loophole in the bylaws. You’re made ineligble to compete once you graduate from 8th grade ... but what if a fully grown adult man never graduated 8th grade?
Before anyone can protest, Bateman barks some legal code and also presents an embedded reporter (played by the great Kathryn Hahn) that seems oddly interested in Bateman's quest to bring chaos into the world of competitive spelling. Faster than you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, it's off to Nationals where Bateman begins his reign of terror on awkward preteens.
He soon meets the bright-eyed Chaitainya (Rohan Chand) an Indian-American kid that Bateman rudely refers to either as Slumdog or Chai Wallah (that's funny if you get it.) Bateman is playing in Danny McBride's pool here - being filthy and shocking and yet somehow a little bit endearing. Of course, eventually you'll want to know WHY he's behaving this way, and it is to "Bad Words"' credit that the reasoning is simple, albeit predictable.
Bateman is resistant to mention anything about his past or upbringing, particularly his father. The tournament is run by Philip Baker Hall - the "Big Man" - who is terse and really quite hung up about respecting solemn and formal nature of this competition. I don't think I have to spell this out for you.
While "Bad Words" is a little too dopey to take seriously, this is compensated for with a handful of truly amusing sequences. You want a musical montage of Jason Bateman and a clueless little boy behaving badly in slow-motion? You got it. You want cringe-worthy inappropriate moments of Bateman terrorizing young girls about menstruation? You got that, too. What about Kathryn Hahn barking "don't you look at me!" while making love? You may not know you want that, but trust me, you do.
It gets a little repetitive, but it when it works, it works. The similarly toned "Bad Santa" had a bit more edge - Billy Bob Thornton's character was cinematic misanthrope for the ages. Jason Bateman's character here is a tad more modest. He's got his goal and he'll do anything to achieve it. If it means scandalizing a few children to get it done, that's what it takes, but he isn't a destructive man. That means the eventual nice guy turn which feels like a genuine wussing out in "Bad Santa" has less of an impact here. It doesn't ruin the film, because, let's face it, the stakes of the film aren't that high anyway.
SCORE: 6.8 / 10