Child actors often have a hard time making the transition from TV sit-coms to the silver screen. Not Jason Bateman. The kid from Little House on the Prairie has done all right for himself (a regular role on Arrested Development certainly helped give him some credibility).
He successfully tests the limits of his talent with Bad Words, a dark comedy in which he plays Guy Trilby, a fortysomething who weasels his way into a national spelling bee thanks to a loophole that he exploits. The quick-witted and generally likeable Bateman, who also directs the film, isn't necessarily suited to play someone so mean-spirited. But he pulls it off, even though the film, which opens areawide on Friday, stumbles to the finish line thanks to its anticlimactic ending.
When we first meet Guy, he's pissed off parents and kids alike at a regional spelling bee. Just as he's about to get tossed out of a competition, Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), a journalist hoping to get the scoop on what's driving Guy, comes to his defense and pretends to be his legal counsel. Guy is allowed to compete and subsequently moves on to nationals. There, he meets Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a brainy 10-year-old American-born kid from an Indian immigrant family who takes the competition very seriously. Against all odds, the two become friendly rivals.
As Guy gets deeper into the national tournament, organizer Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) pulls out all the stops in the attempt to make sure he doesn't advance. But Guy, who never graduated from high school, is no dummy. He's obviously studied for the event and can spell the tough words with the best of them. But he also resorts to mean tricks to give himself an unfair advantage, telling one poor kid that he slept with his mom and making it appear as if another young girl has gotten her first period by putting an open packet of ketchup on her chair when she isn't looking. He's so cold and callous that even Jenny, who starts to fall for him, is turned off by his antics. At one point, Guy even takes his anger out on poor Chaitanya.
In a predictable fashion, the film's finale includes a showdown between Guy and Chaitanya. And it's at this point that we also learn (thanks to some crafty digging by Jenny, who uncovers his deep, dark secret) just what's compelling Guy to want to ruin the hopes and dreams of so many unsuspecting kids. Guy's secret, however, doesn't entirely justify his actions, and Bateman can't quite make us sympathize with his character, even though that's clearly his intent.
Ultimately, the movie succeeds more than it fails. Bateman and Chand have terrific chemistry, so when their characters have their falling out, it actually resonates. And the same goes for Hahn and Bateman. That's a testament to Bateman's skill as a director. And at a time when mainstream comedies seldom start dark and stay dark, Bad Words should be commended for only making the most modest of sacrifices during its final moments.