Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), the 40-year-old protagonist of Bad Words, is a wretched human being. He takes advantage of a loophole in the rules for a national spelling bee so he can compete against a bunch of middle-schoolers, but that's the least of his sins. A true misanthrope, he treats everyone around him like garbage, including the journalist (Kathryn Hahn) who's sponsoring him in exchange for an exclusive story about his perplexing quest.
Yes, this is our protagonist.
Bad Words is Bateman's directorial debut, and unfortunately, it shows. Transgressive comedies are a rich and wonderful tradition, but there's a difference between reveling in a character's most outrageous behavior and making him seem more villainous than heroic. Bateman's storytelling strategy involves making the other characters into head cases. For instance, the spelling bee's director (Allison Janney) responds to outraged parents by stacking the deck against Guy. There's a funny sequence where he must spell the most ridiculously complex words in the English language. Dirty secrets about other characters trickle out in the meantime, making Guy's toxic view of the world seem a bit more justified. Still, it's not enough to redeem him.
Bateman and screenwriter Andrew Dodge also give Guy a 10-year-old kid to counteract his worst behavior with smiling good humor. That kid is Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a fellow contestant and lonely prodigy. Guy becomes a father figure, doing cool-dad stuff like taking Chaitanya to a hooker so he can get his first look at boobs. These moments show Guy at his most decent, and they're lively thanks to Chand's effervescent innocence.
But when Bateman and Hodge finally explain why Guy is such a tool, it's nearly impossible to sympathize with him. The movie just isn't funny enough to make up for his cruelty. Not every story needs a happy ending, but instead of feeling inclined to forgive Guy, you'll want him to get a well-deserved smack in the face.