Jason Bateman is taking a calculated risk with the comedy Bad Words when you consider it shares a certain quality with his last screen comedy, the consistently unpleasant Identity Thief.
Both movies feature an obnoxious protagonist.
In Identity Thief, it was Melissa McCarthy in the role of a credit-card fraudster whose sheer awfulness unbalanced the movie's comic intent.
In his self-directed Bad Words, it is Bateman himself who takes up the challenge of getting us onside with a jerk. He is Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old professional proofreader who exploits a loophole in a national children's spelling bee to compete against children. The rules only stipulate that contestants must never have completed the eighth grade. As it happens, Guy didn't.
Vying against the kids, Guy ruthlessly goes for the trophy, even if that means sabotaging the competition by playing disgraceful tricks.
Bateman proves himself worthy of the story's challenge by staying in his sardonic wheelhouse, but also presenting his character as a mystery to be solved. What is driving Guy to such unprecedented levels of deliberate animosity?
That enigma lands in the lap of Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter whose dubious online news organization is sponsoring Guy's competition with the agreement that he'll give Jenny the exclusive story behind his mission to subvert the bee.
As it happens, that's not all he's giving Jenny. Their infrequent sexual assignations show that journalistic integrity is no more sacrosanct than preserving the innocence of children.
On that score, Guy proves himself glibly indifferent when a lonely fellow competitor named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) makes poignant overtures of friendship to the friendless Guy.
While Guy is not exactly culturally sensitive -- he refers to the Indian kid as "Slumdog" -- he does take the child under his wing for some completely inappropriate adventures, which include employing a prostitute to prove that, yes, all women do have nipples, not just some.
Their relationship would seem to indicate that Guy is not a child-hater. His animosity is more focused on the respectable educators behind the bee itself, whose ranks include a frosty administrator (Allison Janney) and the crusty spelling bee director, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall).
If the comedy is decidedly tasteless -- and it is -- Bateman does at least deliver the laughs, as star and director, although a somewhat twisted sense of humour should be considered an asset going in.
Offsetting the distress heaped on the children in the movie, Chand redeems things with a consistently sunny presence. His appeal is never mawkish. Presumably Bateman, a former child actor himself, took care to present the juvenile character as something more than just a cute kid.
If Bateman's character runs roughshod over his juvenile competitors, Bateman as director takes care of them, which is what counts.