Jason Bateman directed himself in the predictably raucous but unpredictably soulful “Bad Words.” He stars as an embittered grown man who, because he never passed the eighth grade, determines to plow his way into the Golden Quill national spelling bee. Using dirty tactics and dirty words, he enrages parents and children on his single-minded journey to the top.
Determining why someone would do something like this is what gives the movie more than just the shock value of seeing perennially baby-faced Jason Bateman speak unspeakable things to little kids. Since his adult career resurgence, Bateman has a brittle quality in his work and, to the limited extent that I have seen, in interviews in real life. In “Bad Words,” this unsettling undercurrent of unhappiness greatly informs his role, and makes you wonder what’s wrong with him, even as his actions challenge you not to care.
By his side is a disheveled female journalist, whose website is sponsoring him in exchange for an interview. Her questions are ours as viewers; why would a man undertake such an acrimonious quest, hurting little kids in the process and drawing vehement parental ire upon his head at every turn? What’s in it for him?
In Bateman’s hands, his character isn’t just a nihilistic smart-ass; he really is extremely intelligent, with an undercurrent of something that I would not exactly call humanity. The greatest source of this pathos is his friendship with a young boy in the spelling bee, neglected, as Bateman suggests he himself was, by his father.
Of course, their scenes of bonding are fairly depraved; they shoplift, drive fast, drink, and visit a prostitute, but Bateman develops true feelings for the child. Of course, that is all put to the test as the final spelling showdown arrives, and truths and motives are revealed.
Like so many of today’s comic films, “Bad Words” has a dark, nasty streak a mile wide, but there is something ever so slightly redemptive at its core, that makes it more than just an exercise in unpleasant behavior, like “Horrible Bosses,” for example. It’s that, too, don’t get me wrong, but there is at least a kernel of motivation in this story that gives its characters some humanity. The dreadful things that they do still fall pretty short of defensible, but they start to make a certain sick sense.