Misspelling bee: ‘Bad Words’ cops a false attitude

Jason Bateman gloats after defeating a child.
Mike D'Angelo

Two stars

Bad Words Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Kathryn Hahn. Directed by Jason Bateman. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Bad Santa is a great comedy because it brilliantly skewers the crusty-adult-bonds-with-adorable-kid genre, not merely because it juxtaposes crudeness with innocence. Bad Words, the directorial debut of Jason Bateman, doesn’t understand the distinction and winds up as a profanely lackluster example of that very genre. Bateman also stars as Guy Trilby, a middle-aged malcontent who finds a loophole that will allow him to compete against a bunch of little kids for the National Spelling Bee—including Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a chipper Indian-American competitor who never takes Guy’s insults to heart and gradually wears down his resistance.

That the film’s third act is soggy would be more forgivable if the first two were riotous, but Andrew Dodge’s screenplay lacks Bad Santa’s verbal dexterity (that script was reportedly polished by the Coen brothers), and Bateman, reverting to the smarminess he evinced as a child actor on Silver Spoons back in the ’80s, can’t make Guy much more than a generic jerk with a tired secret buried in his past. Even the reliably terrific Kathryn Hahn, as a reporter working on a story about Guy, gets stranded by the material’s relentless blandness. It’s a comedy about offensiveness that’s wholly inoffensive.

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