Review: Jason Bateman gets a lot of mileage out of mean in the very funny ‘Bad Words’

AUSTIN – Jason Bateman has spent most of his life in front of the camera, and like many actors, he finally reached a point where he wanted to make a film of his own. Working from a wicked script by Andrew Dodge, he's made a film that gives him one of the best starring roles he's ever had, and it feels like even though this was written by someone else, it perfectly suits the comic sensibilities he's displayed as long as he's been working.

When Bateman was young, he had a knack for playing awful people who still somehow managed to be charming. Even though he was only on 21 episodes of “Silver Spoons,” that was enough for me to identify him as someone worth watching. He and I are roughly the same age, and I liked that he had such a serene confidence about being a splendid asshole onscreen. Like Michael J. Fox, Bateman had a sense of natural comic timing that was equal to or better than any of his adult co-stars. It seemed like TV was where he worked most often, and as he got older, his attempts to cross over to film were largely unsuccessful.

Well, we're a long way from “Teen Wolf Too.”

Bateman embraces the full power of being a horrible person in “Bad Words,” playing Guy Trilby, a grown man who exploits a loophole in the rules of a major national spelling bee to compete against kids, dominating the competition. When we meet him, he's still in one of the regional bees, and it's clear both the officials and the parents all want to strangle him. Even if he was on his best behavior, it's the sense that he's being unfair to the kids that has everyone on edge, but “best behavior” appears to be a phrase Guy Trilby has never heard. He is verbally abusive, with a wit so sharp it leaves a mark, and he seems to revel in the barrage of obscenity that he constantly unleashes on people.

The poster for the film uses the tag line, “The ends justify the mean,” and I think that's not only clever, but a perfect summation of what the film does. There is a reason Guy is determined to participate in that spelling bee, and he guards that reason carefully. It is entirely personal, and reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) is desperate to uncover the secret. She agrees to sponsor Guy in his attempt, since each contestant has to be sponsored by a newspaper, if he'll answer one question after every day of competition. Little by little, she starts to see through Guy's hostile exterior to his truly hostile interior, and the scenes between the two of them are raunchy and funny and occasionally even piercing.

Rohan Chand plays Chaitanya Chopra, a kid who has a great shot at winning the bee, and he does charming work here. I'm guessing Bateman's own background as a child actor helps account for just how strong all the kid performances in the movie are, and there is a wonderful chemistry between Bateman and Chand onscreen. Chaitanya is a very sweet and somewhat sheltered kid, and despite his own natural defensive mechanisms, Guy finds himself building an unlikely friendship with his opponent. You get a real sense of just how stunted Guy's own development must have been when you see how he treats Chaitanya. The sweetness of their scenes together is tempered with a gleeful malice as Guy introduces his young friend to the glories of shoplifting, smoking, drinking, and boobs.

Allison Janey, Philip Baker Hall, and Rachel Harris all make strong impressions in supporting roles, and in general, Bateman gets great work out of the entire ensemble. The film looks great, and Bateman's work with his cinematographer Ken Seng doesn't have that same unnatural brightness that seems omnipresent in so many studio comedies. At this point, I am a firm believer that if Darko Entertainment backs a dark comedy, that is a dark comedy worth my time and attention. Like “World's Greatest Dad,” this film is built around some genuine anger, but in service of a story about someone bruised by circumstance, and I hope this pays off for Bateman. He proves himself just as comfortable behind the camera as he in in front of it, and “Bad Words” is very, very good as a result.

“Bad Words” opens in limited release on March 14, then rolls out wider on March 28.