Opens Fri., March 21 at Meridian, Lincoln Square, and Alderwood 16. Rated R. 88 minutes.
Jason Bateman cussin’ out a 10-year-old and terrorizing the other tween participants in a national spelling bee ought to be more fun than it is. Bateman’s also the director of Bad Words (written by Andrew Dodge), and he brings a suitably curdled approach to the misanthropic material, which is rather too familiar. (Bad Teacher comes to mind, as do Bad Santa, Bad Grandpa, and The Bad News Bears—all better Bads than this.) Guy Trilby is an angry 40-year-old proofreader with a secret. Why has he gamed the rules of the bee to compete against kids? He’s not saying, not even to his sponsoring website’s woman-on-the-ground, journalist Jenny (Kathryn Hahn, fiercely funny but in need of a real role).
Bateman the actor can play surly asshole in his sleep, and Bateman the director never pushes him out of that comfort zone. The hostile behavior—and later, inappropriate mentoring—Guy directs at his precocious rival Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), dubbed “Slumdog,” is never less than predictable. And Guy’s secret, I’m sorry, is easy to guess. As he rudely and relentlessly crushes his competitors at bee after bee, even spelling “floccinaucinihilipilification” correctly (look it up), Bad Words becomes tiresomely repetitive—unlike the cleverly repetitive Groundhog Day. Old pros like Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall are deployed to routine effect; like Bateman, they’re coasting here. The movie toggles between caustic and cute, but there’s never any doubt where it’s headed. How do you spell “obvious”? Oh, wait, I just did.