The winning word in the first National Spelling Bee, held in Louisville in 1925, was gladiolus. The champion among the 2 million contestants was 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser, whose stonemason father helped him study obscure words on weekends when it was raining. Young Frank, as his New York Times obit noted, prayed for sunny weather. He wanted to play baseball.
In the 90 years since that first Bee, the number of contestants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee has grown to 11 million, and the words have become considerably more abstruse. The rules, though, remain constant: participants must be no older than 15 and must not have graduated from eighth grade.
(READ: Our coverage of the 1925 National Spelling Bee by subscribing to TIME)
Yet in Bad Words, 40-year-old Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is interning in that milieu. To snag the top guerdon at a fake National Spelling Bee, Guy relies on his photographic memory and a certain prospicience about the vulnerabilities of spelling prodigies. Like a kamikaze on a luge, he has a pococurante knack for creating a promiscuous fracas among his young rivals. In one vignette after another, this insouciant spoliator applies a serrefine or incisor to his opponents’ self-confidence. He springs the guetapens of reverse psychiatry on his opponents, until children whose only ailment may be logorrhea suddenly break out in emotional eczema and psoriasis, are struck mute by odontalgia, suffer antediluvian xanthosis and finally require therapy in a sanitarium. In other words, Guy’s mean to the kids.
In 1981, when he was the age of most of Guy’s innocent victims, Bateman was playing Michael Landon’s adopted son on Little House on the Prairie. He appeared as a regular in a dozen TV series, which may be a record. And though he has said he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in his twenties, he emerged from kid stardom as an intact adult — a slightly spikier Michael J, Fox. He’s been the go-to actor for beset normal people on TV (Arrested Development) and in movies (Identity Thief). Perhaps tiring of Mr. Nice Guy, Bateman signed on as the star and director of the verry-R-rated Bad Words.
(READ: Mary Pols on Jason Bateman in Identity Thief)
In the acrid script by first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge, Bateman’s Guy finds loopholes in the rules of Bowman’s fictional spelling bee run by the esteemed educator Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) and his officious aide Dr. Deagan (Allison Janney in the Jane Lynch role). His only supporter is the journalist Jenny (Kathryn Hahn), whose online blog sponsored Guy’s appearance in the Bee, and who isn’t enough of a Si Hersh to find out why he’s doing it.
He also hooks up with a genius 10-year-old named Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). This charming young actor has already played the son of terrorist Abu Nidal in Homeland and Adam Sandler’s adopted boy in Jack and Jill. So he probably survived Guy’s treating him to the spectacle of a prostitute’s large breasts. That’s supposed to be a generous gesture on Guy’s part — what any good dad would do for his naïve child.
(READ: Our review of Jack and Jill)
Bad Words nestles in the modern movie tradition of surrogate-parenting as exemplified by Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa. We readily grant that kids, especially kids from Hell, need to learn that adults can communicate in other ways than begging the young to behave. But the children here are decent, bright and focused. Guy is the disturbed one. He does have a motive for revenge, revealed late in the proceedings, but it hardly justifies his serial humiliation of the kids.
Put baldly, Guy’s strategies to win the Bee amount to emotional child abuse. Fondling Jenny’s panties, which she’d left from an erotic encounter the night before, he hands them to one child, saying he’d had sex with the boy’s mother; the kid freaks out and is sent home. Guy then slips a smidge of ketchup under a girl’s seat and whispers that her first menstrual blood is showing through her skirt; she bolts in shame. Bad Words seems to be heading into the creepy realm of a sociopath’s case study, yet it’s presented as a breezy satire about a rebel against the system. It must be the Dictionary-Industrious Complex.
(READ: Our review of Bad Teacher)
The movie never makes Guy’s deification intelligible, leaving viewers in a state of deteriorating narcolepsy. For all its meticulosity, the film is about as nourishing as a knaidel (last year’s winning word in the real National Spelling Bee) on Purim.
(Note: All boldfaced and hyperlinked terms are the “winning words” of National Spelling Bee champions.)