Bad Words

For better and mostly worse, Jason Bateman’s directorial debut plays to his strengths. A former child star with a latent midlife gift for depicting stunted adulthood, Bateman casts himself in Bad Words as the bitter 40-year-old crasher of a hallowed national spelling bee. While there he annihilates his preteen competitors and makes short work of variously challenging vocabulary. Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter who hangs around to pick up his tabs and figure out why he would do such things. Here Hahn seems like a rightful companion to Bateman, in that she’s always welcome on screen yet never quite fulfilled by the given material. Andrew Dodge’s gangling script shows a compulsion to swerve away from sentimental expectations, but only manages to mire itself in affected anti-cute misanthropy and a last-act redemption much duller than the axe Bateman’s character has to grind. Our recurring cue to not be offended by the movie’s crass bigotry is the sense of all the people in it seeming generally more like cartoons than humans. That said, the timing of Bateman’s performance is spot-on, and as a director he works at least well enough with kids — particularly Rohan Chand, who plays a bright-eyed frenemy — to fortify his otherwise tired insult-comedy shtick with a certain noxious vitality.