It's not the child corruption or vagina jokes that define Bad Words—it's the sweetness. Because while this is a movie that wants to shock its viewers, Jason Bateman's amusing but ultimately forgettable directorial debut becomes, by its final round, a warm-your-heart affair.
Admitted to a national spelling bee on a technicality, 40-year-old eighth-grade dropout Guy Trilby has made it his mission to win—and he'll happily piss off parents and humiliate pre-teens for a shot at the trophy. There's a motive behind his shit disturbance, but we don't know it yet: that's for librarian-sexy internet journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) to niggle out. She's been following him around the country for the past eight weeks (continuing cinema's time-honoured tradition of depicting bloggers as ballers with huge reporting budgets), but still knows zilch. Even if they have had sex a few times.
Although Bad Words is true to it's title—there are lots of cusses—the script relies on a pretty safe comedic premise: adult says provocative things in front of children, sweater-vest-wearing parents freak out. The film considers it a given that profanity is hilarious, and expresses a glee about swearing that most adults have outgrown. Occasionally, Guy lets loose a poetic string of awful; more often, his jibes are just mean.
Still, Bateman offsets Guy's misanthropy by tying together the story in a more or less sympathetic bow. As Chaitanya, the pre-pubescent bee frontrunner with whom Guy strikes up a reluctant friendship, Rohan Chand nails "annoying 10-year-old" so well that he often actually is annoying. Allison Janney is appropriately pinch-lipped as the contest's veteran director, and Hahn gamely unearths Guy's non-jerk side while digging around in his past. But this is Bateman's project, and he proves himself a solid—if not inspired—director and lead, reigning in his subject's spite before things dip too dark. Where Guy is an asshole, Bateman is kind of a softie.