Jason Bateman has become known for a certain kind of character: The nice guy with an edge. He was a workplace doormat in "Identity Thief," a beleaguered family man in "The Change-Up," a steadfast friend to a pretty girl in "The Switch." Unlike other nice-guy actors -- the puppyish Jack Lemmon, the ever-noble Tom Hanks -- Bateman gives his characters a healthy dash of bitterness. That's what makes them so likable and real.
In the comedy-drama "Bad Words," Bateman makes his directorial debut and casts himself against type. Here, he's almost all bitterness, with perhaps a pinch of nice, in the role of Guy Trilby, an angry 40-year-old who, for mysterious reasons, enters a national spelling bee for children. A loophole in the rules of the prestigious Golden Quill states that contestants cannot have graduated from 8th grade, and Trilby has not. Now, outraged parents must watch a professional proofreader trounce their tots by spelling words like "absquatulate" and "slubberdegullion."
That last word is basically a synonym for villain, and it's no coincidence. Bateman's Trilby is so rude, caustic and unpleasant that it's hard to muster much sympathy for him. There's humor in watching him dash the dreams of shiny-eyed Wunderkinder, but some of his pranks feel low and icky, as when he tricks a grade-schooler into thinking she's menstruating. His attitude toward women overall is a little gross: He lobs a crude lesbian joke at the Golden Quill's chilly administrator, Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney), and treats a dogged reporter, Jenny (a likable Kathryn Hahn), rather doggishly. Even his budding friendship with Chaitanya Chopra, a sheltered whiz-kid played by Rohan Chand, is marked by racist slurs like "slumdog" and "shawarma."
Bateman never convinces us that there's a cream-puff underneath Trilby's nasty exterior. (Few actors could, though Bill Murray comes to mind.) Part of the problem is Andrew Dodge's uneven script, which pingpongs between comedic tones. It's a little bit "Election," a little bit "Bad Santa," with an emotionally serious ending -- in which we learn just what Trilby has been trying to prove -- that misses its mark. Bateman does a perfectly capable job directing "Bad Words," but he seems to have misjudged his star.
PLOT An embittered 40-year-old finds a way to compete in a children's spelling bee.
RATING R (language, nudity, adult themes)
CAST Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand
BOTTOM LINE In his directorial debut, Bateman casts himself as a foul-mouthed, racist jerk. It's a stretch for the nice-guy actor, but the role doesn't suit him.