Rohan Chand, left, and Jason Bateman (Focus Features)

Rohan Chand, left, and Jason Bateman in Bad Words (Focus Features)

Directed by Jason Bateman
Written by Andrew Dodge
Produced by Mr. Bateman, Mason Novick, Sean McKittrick and Jeff Culotta
Released by Focus Features
USA. 89 min. Rated R
With Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Ben Falcone, Philip Baker Hall & Allison Janney

In a film filled to the tipping point with a whirlwind of expletives, flippant racism, and an underscoring of everything politically incorrect, Jason Bateman’s directorial debut possesses a surprising level of empathy and heart. The caustic comedy follows Bateman’s Guy Trilby, a sardonic misanthrope who boasts a photographic memory. He also might be a genius. He discovers a loophole in the eligibility rules for the Golden Quill spelling bee and makes it his mission to unravel and embarrass the nationally televised contest. With a conceit that removes any preciousness or sentimentality from its proceedings, Bad Words excels at throwing—and taking–its Spellbound punches.

Opening with Guy’s detached voice-over as he awaits the start of a qualifying match, it’s evident from his hasty, profanity-laden interactions with parents, organizers, and even his fellow prepubescent contestants that Guy is not here to make friends. He’s an antagonist, through and through, and yet Bateman’s portrayal invokes a sense of longing and alienation–perhaps, arrested development?–rather than outright hostility. He says all the wrong things, and yet, somehow, you can’t help but root for the guy.

Guy meets his match in a perky, precocious nine-year-old, Chaitanya (Homeland’s Rohan Chand, a marvel of child-acting prowess). The son of strict but disconnected parents, Chaitanya could have easily followed the tropes of a put-upon youngster with too much talent and not enough love. Instead, Chand plays him as a mindful, savvy egghead without coming across as cloying. He spouts an endless repertoire of biting asides, keeping up with Bateman in every acerbic exchange, and his ability to cut Guy down at the knees is hysterical.

Their interactions work because, right off the bat, Guy treats Chaitanya as a worthy adversary rather than dismissing him as just another kid. An initial meet-cute on an airplane dispels any consideration that Guy might hold back his venomous barbs on the bright-eyed youth. He digs right in with a succession of overtly racist remarks that Chaitanya receives and effortlessly throws right back in Guy’s face.

It’s as if the kid is finally getting the chance to play a (metaphorical) game of catch–an activity that has long evaded him due to lack of friends and preoccupied parents–except instead of a baseball, they’re tossing insults. The foundation of the boy’s unceasing affection for Guy’s crotchety 40-something is clear from the get-go: he’s found someone who will engage him without glorifying his spelling talents or knock him down because of them.

Guy is also accompanied by Jenny Widgeon, a disheveled reporter who acts as his spelling bee sponsor and, in turn, possesses the exclusive rights to his story. Jenny is played to unkempt perfection by the magnificent Kathryn Hahn, a character actress who has really been on fire lately (Afternoon Delight, We’re the Millers) and seems to hover on the cusp of true movie stardom. Hahn delivers yet another brilliantly heedful performance as a woman who knows her own flaws and yet continues to make the same mistakes over and over again. Her farcical interchanges with Bateman are filled with sharp-tongued drollery, yet there’s an ease to their relationship that provides an undertone of deluded affability.

That underlying warmth is what makes Bad Words palatable. The ceaseless, offensive remarks thrown offhand are only excused because Bateman’s character is so obviously propelled by his own demons. His vitriol is a defense and not really intended to bring down his opponents. That’s not to say that none of his methods go a bit too far. A few unconditionally cross the line. But somehow, Guy is continually redeemed by his steadfast belief that his mission has a purpose. It doesn’t hurt that as an actor Bateman has honed an ability to utter snide missives with a wink and a smirk and yet still come off as a likable, relatable everyman.

And while Bateman’s skills as an actor are only reinforced here, his wily competence as a first-time director is also displayed to full effect. Twists are depicted with casual confidence, and the film’s relaxed atmosphere is indicative of Bateman’s proficiency behind the lens. His casting of Chand, Hahn, and a litany of comical supporting actors (Allison Janney and Ben Falcone, to name two standouts) is spot-on, but his most adept decision was in knowing that only a well-regarded actor like himself could play Guy to his fullest, nastiest potential. With Bateman in front of–and behind–the camera, Bad Words evades easy clichés and bad movie mistakes.