Jason Bateman has described his directorial debut, "Bad Words," as "'Bad Santa' with spelling bees," a comparison so evident in the material that it's practically a remake. The actor's step behind the camera, in which he plays a bitter 40-year-old who crashes a national children's spelling bee by amusingly upstaging the pre-pubescent competitors, moves along at an enjoyable pace carried by its steady heap of one-liners. Taking cues from Andrew Dodge's Blacklist screenplay, "Bad Words" has a caustic wit that puts its comedy in league with "Bad Santa," but just barely delivers on the cruel intensions of the premise without deepening it, as the aforementioned precedent does so well. It's less of a showcase for Bateman's ability to direct comedic storytelling than simply to make people laugh, which makes "Bad Words" a sufficiently vulgar playground.
"I'm not good at a lot of things," confesses Guy Tribly (Bateman) in an opening voiceover. "Especially thinking things through." He's referring to a scheme already in medias res when the movie begins: With a muckraking reporter in tow (Kathryn Hahn), Guy has been traveling the country and showing up at spelling bee competitions and exploiting a loophole that allows him to compete. In the opening credits sequence, he flees a horde of angry parents in slo-mo, establishing the fundamental tension that will continue for the rest of the movie. As he gradually advances toward the National Quill Spelling Bee, Guy contends with the reporter's increasingly aggressive attempts to figure out his motivation for the scheme, while engaging in a hilariously unromantic series of hotel room trysts with her to pass the time. His plan gets complicated by the arrival of affable young Indian boy Chaitainya (Rohad Chand, the movie's true discovery) who befriends Guy when the duo stay down the hall from each other while prepping for the final tournament.
It's here that the "Bad Santa" comparisons are especially obvious, since both movies involve the irreverent relationship between a sourpusses older man and a seemingly innocent child, although Chaitainya has a lot more to say. His doe-eyed expression runs counter to the new experiences thrust onto him, when the uptight Guy eventually takes Chaitainya out for a ribald night on the town that includes mean-spirited pranks and a fleeting encounter with a prostitute. These sequences form the high point of "Bad Words," one of the movies that consciously celebrates the freedom to push comedy to the most extreme punchlines it can find. Though not as searingly anti-establishment as Bobcat Goldthwait's satires or dealing with high stakes like "Bad Santa," the humor in "Bad Words" has a gleefully unhinged quality that goes down easy. Whether tricking a young competitor into thinking she's having her period in order to scare her off from the competition or convincing another youngster that he slept with the kid's mother, Guy's ruthlessness apparently has no limits.
Bateman's performance is even more relevant to the merits of "Bad Words" than his largely straightforward direction. Playing against his nice guy vibes (as he did in the recent Netflix-produced episodes of "Arrested Development"), the actor continually sports a self-deprecating grin that gives his constant spitballing of putdowns their necessary bite. Beyond the singular example of Billy Bob Thornton's "Bad Santa" performance, Bateman's delivery bears a similarity to any number of character types in which part of the humor comes out of the anticipation involved in not knowing what he might say next (see: Danny McBride in "Eastbound and Down," Larry David in "Curb Your Enthusiasm").
That's all well and good for the first 45 minutes or so, when "Bad Words" moves along exclusively carried by Guy's disgruntled humor. But when he attempts to deepen the character with backstory and his true motives come into focus, the premise crams in a lot of detail too late for it to sink in. "Bad Words" creates the sense of sifting through a toolbox of gags with no plan for how to put them together. The eventual revelation that shifts "Bad Words" into its final act lacks the sheer lunacy constantly suggested by the jokes. Bateman flaunts the ability to push the boundaries of savage humor to a certain extreme, but ultimately doesn't go far enough, mainly succeeding by fulfilling the promise of its title.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Focus Features releases the film in a handful of cities this weekend, when Bateman's fan base and the lure of a bawdy R-rated comedy should yield respectable box office returns even as the masses flock to "Need for Speed."
A version of this review was published during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Browse more reactions to "Bad Words" in the Criticwire Network.