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Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, and Allison Janney star in Bateman’s new movie Bad Words.

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★★✩✩✩

Bad Words

Directed by Jason Bateman

Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney

Rated R

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This movie is a real mixed bag. It has the makings of a good story: we follow Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), who has found a loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. A contestant can’t have completed 8th grade by February 1st, and 40-year-old Guy never finished the eighth grade at all. He makes it all the way to nationals while dodging everyone’s questions about why he’s pulling this stunt, brushing off even Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter from the news website that’s sponsoring him. On the way, he meets ten-year-old Chaitainya Chopra (Rohan Chand), a seemingly innocent foil.

Unlike almost any other movie centered on a high-stakes competition, we never get the sense that whether Guy wins or not matters. There’s also no romantic “will they or won’t they?” tension between Guy and Jenny, only awkward sex that we are subjected to every so often, even though neither seems all that into it.

And it’s not just the hookups that don’t make sense — most of characters aren’t quite believable either. The only reason to keep watching is to find out what Guy’s deal is. It feels manipulative, like following click bait and hoping that the embedded video of a toddler singing “Wrecking Ball” really is the best video you’ll see all week.

But the story is not the problem here. In the end, Guy does have a plan, but he’s not really certain himself how it’s going to go. That explanation can make up for a lot of the apparent missteps earlier on in this movie because Guy’s story does have emotional truth to it. It’s just a pity almost no one else’s does.

We reluctantly root for Guy not because we come to understand him as he opens up to Chaitainya but because everyone else either makes no sense as a character or is entirely unlikable in their own right. Take the mother of one of the other contestants, who tells Guy off for hi-jacking the competition. An angry rant can totally be played for laughs, but it’s as if the writers never thought about what someone in that position would actually say. Guy retorts with some generic throwaway insult about her vagina, and she stops attacking him to defend it.

The fact that the parents and organizers are hard to like doesn’t make Guy easier to like. It just makes the whole movie hard to watch, despite the decent comedic timing all around, good camera work, and at times artfully subtle direction.

Guy tells racist and sexist jokes throughout the movie. It is somewhat of a trope that if you don’t have time to establish a character as a reprobate, you can just have him tell a cringe-worthy joke. The audience will fill in the rest. Guy calling Chaitainya “Shwarma” and telling him to shut his “curryhole” gets old really fast, though. Bad Words as a concept has a lot of potential, but the script as it is just doesn’t quite spell it out.