Fuck This Shit. Bad Words, Reviewed.

Jerry Seinfeld has famously stayed away from swearing in his standup, insisting that cursing to get a laugh is easy. Even if many thousands of comedians have proved that, cheap or not, cussing for laughs can still be hilarious, he does have a point. There are few things less funny than sitting through a bad comedy that tries to get a reaction solely from rampant swearing. Whatever feelings of liberation the bad words might inspire in the audience are buried beneath the overwhelming air of desperation.

Bad Words, the directorial debut of Jason Bateman, is one of the more uncomfortably desperate comedies of recent times. Even the shrill Identity Thief (which co-starred Bateman) had Melissa McCarthy's lightning-in-a-bottle energy. Bad Words isn't as broadly stupid as that film, but it's almost as obnoxious because it so proudly waves the flag for its main character's "outrageous" behavior. Guy Trilby, played by Bateman, is supposed to be a shocking reprobate, a smarter but equally mean peer to Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa or Cameron Diaz's Bad Teacher. But almost from the outset, it's clear that the nastiness on display is mostly an act, a way for audiences (and the actors) to feel like they're being "subversive" for an hour and a half. The problem with Bad Words isn't that it's mean. It's that it's not really mean but tries so hard to think it is.

Guy is a 40-year-old misanthrope who has discovered a loophole in a national grade-school spelling bee's rules: It says that no one who graduated from eighth grade by a certain date is eligible, but because he dropped out of school before then, he can't be disqualified. Followed by a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) who's writing about his adventure, Guy wants to win the bee for the hefty cash prize—as well as for ulterior motives he's keeping to himself. As he makes his way to the national final, he enjoys being a dick to everyone in his path, including a sweet 10-year-old named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand) who's also competing. Swearing, screwing, and drinking, Guy is a jerk who almost certainly has some secret psychic pain he's trying to hide.

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To start with, I'm not sure if I even understand this film's premise. Guy, who's a copy editor, is an excellent speller, and all the young competitors' parents are incensed that he's using this loophole to cheat. But it's not like he's a grown man taking on little kids in a basketball game: Does he really have any advantage over these students because he's older? Sure, he's had more experience with words, but adults don't have an easier time with memorization than young people do. (If anything, it seems like grownups have far worse memories.) Nonetheless, this becomes a huge bone of contention with all the parents, adding to Guy's "uproarious" rep as a toxic human being. But just because he discovered this loophole, that doesn't mean he's somehow got the upper hand on these kids.

If that seems like nitpicking, the bigger obstacle is Guy himself. As an onscreen presence, Bateman is at his best playing seemingly ordinary, clean-cut guys who have an edge to them. Arrested Development's Michael Bluth was his peak, allowing him to be incredibly snarky but also surprisingly bighearted as well. (As cutting and silly as that show was, it needed Bateman's emotional grounding to fully work.) Guy doesn't seem like an ideal character for Bateman: He's all surface nastiness, and the actor isn't all that convincing playing a total bastard. (There's always a sense that he's holding something back, which keeps undercutting whatever darkness Guy is supposed to have.)

Those quibbles aren't supposed to be the point, though: What matters is that we laugh in horror at the terrible things Guy says to everybody around him. But the problem is that for those insults to land, either Guy needs to be a really fascinating prick or the people he's zinging have to really deserve it. But neither is the case: Writer Andrew Dodge has envisioned Guy as a run-of-the-mill racist and sexist—the character's idea of a zinger is to call the Indian kid "Slumdog" or "Shawarma"—and his targets (though somewhat dorky) are pretty milquetoast. (Allison Janney's dully prim-and-proper bee administrator is as close to a rich comic target as Bad Words can muster.)

Some great comedies get their juice from the audience's recognition that sacred cows are being slaughtered without apology, and their anarchic air can be intoxicating. But Bad Words is far too safe to ruffle any feathers: It's faux-shock for people who still giggle at unsubtle menstruation and poop jokes. Bateman has assembled a fine cast, which also includes Philip Baker Hall and Ben Falcone, and the movie has enough polish that it breezes along with ease. (And Chand is pretty damn delightful, playing Chaitanya with a resolutely friendly air. No matter how much Guy verbally assaults him, this adorable geek is just happy that someone's talking to him.) But its barbs go right through: Nothing draws blood, and what starts off as mildly amusing quickly becomes tedious.

Of course, wouldn't you know it, Bad Words isn't really about its meanness. On cue, this would-be rude comedy eventually shows its sentimental streak, revealing a plot twist that's pretty easy to guess and then proceeding into sappier terrain, trying to justify why Guy was horrible this whole time. It's bad enough when a movie pretends to be abrasive—it's even worse when it chickens out to be the sort of heartwarming crap it insisted it was railing against.

Grade: C.


Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.