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Focus Features
Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn star in “Bad Words,” which is in local theaters now.

Movie Review: Nasty behavior begets laughs in spelling bee story

'Bad Words' ***

If you've seen the poster for "Bad Words," starring and directed by Jason Bateman, you'll see a sneer on Bateman's face. It's truly nasty. More than most movie posters, this image sets a perfect tone for the film, much of which really is that nasty.

And funny. But more on that in a minute.

It's nothing new to see a film about a misanthrope. What does feel different in "Bad Words," however, is the way Bateman's character treats kids. Nobody dies or gets physically hurt. But feelings? Kids' feelings? They don't just get hurt, they get smashed to smithereens, remorselessly and often profanely. Remember those two criminals in "Home Alone," making life miserable for little Macaulay Culkin? Compared to Bateman's Guy Trilby, those fellows were Santa Claus and Glinda the Good Witch of the North.

Bateman's directorial debut is set in the singular world of the American spelling bee, where ruthlessly brainy kids compete for stardom, pushed by ruthlessly competitive parents. Trilby is 40 years old but has found a loophole enabling him to compete: The rules say you can't have passed the eighth grade. And he hasn't. Ever.

At the regional bee, Trilby shows what he's capable of. A chubby kid next to him asks what he's doing onstage. "Your chair called me for help," Trilby replies.

If you think that's bad, just wait until he taunts another competitor with the suggestion that he slept with the boy's mom the previous night. But nothing compares to the emotional damage he inflicts on a shy young girl – we won't discuss it here, but let's just say we remain permanently scarred – with the goal of getting her to leave the competition abruptly.

To leave abruptly, or to "absquatulate" – that's one of the words Trilby spells correctly. Another: "Floccinaucinihilipilification," or the action of estimating something as worthless – which is what Trilby does to everyone he meets.

Turns out Trilby may be a misanthrope, but he has a genius IQ. And so he makes the finals of the Golden Quill, which, wouldn't ya know it, are being televised for the first time. This causes great worry for Dr. Deagan, who runs the bee with an iron fist (Allison Janney, who makes you laugh even before she opens her mouth) and the chief overseeing it all, Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall.)

Trilby's accompanied by a reporter, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn, reliably kooky) whose editors are funding his cross-country trip on the mere chance he'll reveal his inner purpose (let's just note here that these editors are unrealistically generous). The two have a relationship consisting of awkward sexual trysts and many insults, most from Trilby.

But the central dynamic is really between Trilby and a precociously adorable 10-year-old boy, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), who seeks Trilby's friendship even though the latter peppers him, too, with insults – calling him "Slumdog" and telling him to shut his "curry-hole" in reference to his ethnic heritage. The two have some amusing scenes, especially a nightlong extravaganza of inappropriate behavior that may have some of you parents in the audience, er, "absquatulating," or at least avidly "floccinaucinihilipilificating" the screenplay.

So what's the point of it all? Well, it's an American movie that seeks to be mainstream, and it stars the likable Bateman, so of course you know there's an underlying reason for what Trilby's doing, one that will emerge in due course.

But to the film's credit, this twist doesn't announce itself too soon, and so there's tension here – not to mention hilarity. There are definitely moments that go too far. But if you know what you're getting into – an R-rated comedy about a (mostly) nasty guy – it's hard to imagine you won't find yourself helplessly "cachinnating" at some points.

"Cachinnating?" Laughing hard. Trilby would know how to spell it.

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