Guy Trilby doesn’t have many admirable qualities beyond the ability to spell floccinaucinihilipilification. The protagonist of “Bad Words” spews mean, racist and sexist barbs and uses his one impressive power for evil. The 40-year-old exploits loopholes in the guidelines for the Golden Quill national spelling bee so he can compete, all the while humiliating 10-year-olds by chipping away at their barely built self-confidence.
Lovable everyman Jason Bateman plays this despicable misanthrope, which might explain why, despite Guy’s over-the-top flaws, he’s still worth watching. And maybe there’s some justification for his behavior. Guy explains in a voice-over at the start of the movie that this is all part of a revenge plot, and while “Bad Words” is no “The Count of Monte Cristo,” Bateman’s feature directorial debut is a crafty story with some unpredictable turns. Guy’s mysterious motives are the engine that propels the movie through some truly twisted comedy.
Two characters soften the prickly scenario considerably. The first is Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter who’s covering this bizarro spectacle. Guy refuses to answer her questions about why he would embarrass himself, much less make children cry.
Then there’s Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a 10-year-old who seems impervious to Guy’s foulmouthed insults. The little guy wants to be friends with his middle-aged competition, and no amount of racial taunts directed his way can change his mind. Chaitanya has no chance of turning Guy into a cuddly teddy bear, but the kid does manage to become sort of a sidekick, an accessory to Guy’s late-night carousing and heartless pranks on strangers. Guy feeds Chaitanya shots, takes him out for ice cream and, when the kid asserts that only some women have nipples, pays a woman named Marzipan to prove otherwise.
Learning really can be fun.
Chand is a talented actor who manages to be cute without seeming overbearingly precocious: He just plays it straight in an earnest, unsentimental way. When he explains that, yes, he has named his spelling binder Todd, and Todd might be his only friend, you might not feel sorry for him so much as marvel at his frankness.
Chaitanya gets most of the laugh lines, while Guy’s humor falls along a spectrum with uncomfortable jokes on one end (“I hope no one sees me laughing at this,” might come to mind) and moments that are too cruel to inspire a weak smile at the other. There are also scenarios that don’t seem inspired so much as pointlessly vulgar, with a laundry list of grotesqueries from weird sexual fetishes to plastic bags of feces.
That being said, Bateman’s directorial debut looks great, with smart use of slow motion and shots that are framed to amp up the comedy. Bateman, who’s so often the put-upon straight man, really stretches himself here. His deadpan delivery works just as well in the role of a wicked antihero as it does when he plays Michael Bluth in “Arrested Development.” And although his character might be a one-trick pony, Bateman’s directing proves he’s got skills to spare.
★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains crude and sexual content, language, children drinking alcohol and brief nudity. 88 minutes.