If the spelling bee comedy Bad Words were a word, it would be "mediocre."
Directed by and starring Jason Bateman, Bad Words takes advantage of the harried likability the actor has used a lot since Arrested Development. He plays Guy, a profane slacker who exploits a rules technicality to enter and win middle-school spelling bees. He immediately announces, "You don't know me, and you don't know why I'm here."
That obvious attempt to cook up suspense around Guy's motives — clearly, he will reveal who he is and why he's there, probably in the closing moments — is just one example of how by-the-numbers Bad Words is.
Andrew Dodge's screenplay has some snappy insults, but it feels like an assignment in a writing class, so insistently does it hit the marks of a "successful screenplay," including phony suspense, a plot reversal you will spot from a mile away and lessons learned by one and all.
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Guy travels with a reporter, amiably played by Kathryn Hahn, whose role makes no sense because she's racking up expenses to cover a minor story about a guy who refuses to speak with her.
In the bees, Guy insults fellow contestants while they're awaiting their turns or he simply cheats, which also makes no sense: If he's as confident as he says he is, why cheat?
Much of Bad Words turns on his relationship with fellow contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), whom he calls "Slumdog" and whose relationship with his dictatorial father strikes a nerve in Guy. The scenes between Chand and Bateman are the funniest in the movie because Chaitanya brings out the best in Guy and because Bateman's direction of the movie's children is so assured.
About the 80-minute mark, screenwriting classes apparently tell writers of comedies to wrap things up. By then, Dodge's screenplay has begun to run out of steam, anyway, so it's probably just as well that it's at that point that he fast-forwards to: Secrets revealed, fences mended, everyone hugs, the end.