By Mick LaSalle
The first news to come out of “Bad Words” is that Jason Bateman can direct. You can find evidence of that in the actors’ performances and in the spare, clear way he conveys the screenplay’s ideas. But the surest indication is that there can be no awareness, while watching “Bad Words,” that the guy in close-up is also the one choosing every shot and controlling its length. Bateman understands himself — not just his abilities, but his meaning as an actor — and he uses that knowledge, not to try something completely new but to build on a foundation already laid.
The movie is about a 40-year-old man who, through a loophole in the rules, enters into a national children’s spelling bee, determined to win at all costs. Guy (Bateman) is not the usual innocuous dreamer that you find in most comedies, but an impassive, angry personality, and the movie goes right to the limits of what an audience will accept from a lead character. He is verbally abusive and deliberately tricks and eliminates his young competition, sometimes in cruel ways.
These moments have a shock impact that give the comedy its edge, and Bateman plays them straight, so that the audience knows something is up with this guy. It’s all in the casting. Put another actor in there and show him being mean to kids, and viewers would be ready to revolt. But something about Bateman … Even when he’s hard and not showing you anything and not giving you anything, there’s something behind the eyes that makes you think he has his reasons. This is about something more than winning a spelling bee.
At heart, “Bad Words” is a nice little concoction about a fellow walking around with a deep emotional wound, who heals it, not by confronting the source of his troubles, but by healing a similar wound in someone else. That’s all there in Andrew Dodge’s screenplay, and Bateman doesn’t screw it up. Atypical for a first-time feature director (albeit one with lots of TV credits), Bateman has the confidence to be subtle, to present the movie’s themes clearly but with no underlining. He assumes that the audience is made up of adults who have been paying attention.
Most of “Bad Words” takes place over the course of a weekend competition, played out in several rounds, to determine the national champion. Guy arrives with an online journalist, played by Kathryn Hahn, who matches Bateman in her ability to be funny without ever playing the laughs. She is especially funny in a couple of comic sex scenes, which contain a running gag that’s one of the film’s best.
But Bateman’s main co-star is Rohan Chand as Chaitanya, a 10-year-old competitor, an American from a demanding immigrant Indian family. Bateman, who started out as a child actor, gets a full-bodied performance from Chand, who acts neither bratty nor overly charming. He’s simply present, there in his emotions and suggesting a whole family history behind him. When a little kid is this good, send him congratulations, but look to the director, too. That wasn’t just good luck.
We are in a period of coarse and caustic screen comedy, which has its limits but is much to be preferred over the fake sentiment of ’80s and ’90s comedy. “Bad Words” is very much in the modern pattern — coarse and not fake at all, but it has a soul, too. It’s too little a picture to shake up the industry, but along with Lake Bell’s “In a World” from last year, it could be pointing in the next direction. At the very least, it puts Jason Bateman on the map as a comedy director.