Vulgar vocabulary is the least of the defects besetting "Bad Words" (Focus), a surly comedy starring Jason Bateman that also marks his directorial debut.
The apparent intent is to offer audiences a wild ride in the company of a cynic so indifferent to the opinion of others that he constantly flouts the rules of respectability and polite convention. But the film crosses an ethical line as its antihero violates laws of a far more binding nature, engaging in emotional cruelty and the corruption of a child.
Bateman plays Guy Trilby, an abrasive underachiever who exploits a loophole in the rules of a national spelling bee in order to compete against its field of kid contestants. His maneuver outrages the children's parents and frustrates the competition's hard-nosed director, Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney), as well as its professorial founder, Dr. William Bowman (Philip Baker Hall).
Since each participant needs to be sponsored by a news organization, Guy has gained the backing of online journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn). Jenny's real interest in the situation, however, consists in reporting on her defiant protege and the aggrieved reaction to his stunt. She's also trying to figure out Guy's motivation, a subject on which he's anything but forthcoming.
Guy's caustic ways effectively repel everyone around him. But the thick-skinned loner eventually meets his match in the diminutive person of 12-year-old super speller Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). Relentlessly good-natured and unflappably upbeat, Chaitanya is determined to befriend Guy -- and no torrent of verbal abuse, including obscene insults and ethnic slurs, will succeed in deterring him.
The path of screenwriter Andrew Dodge's script leads, ultimately, toward redemption of a sort for its protagonist.
Yet its route takes in not only the strictly physical -- and somewhat perverse -- sexual relationship that develops between Guy and Jenny but the harmful psychological tricks Guy plays to unbalance his fellow entrants. We're presumably meant to find these sadistic tactics amusing, if only because they're so outrageous.
The worst patch of the journey, however, comes after Guy, despite himself, takes a shine to Chaitanya after all. Guy's idea of mentoring the boy, and providing him with unbridled fun, involves introducing him to alcohol, shoplifting, pornography and the exposed torso of a prostitute.
We've already witnessed Guy's successful effort to get the reluctant Chaitanya to swear; now we see him paying a streetwalker to bare her breasts for the lad. With that, the proceedings sink to a depth of squalid irresponsibility no happy wrap-up can redeem.
The film contains immoral values, including a benign view of petty theft and underage drinking, graphic nonmarital sexual activity, some of it aberrant, upper female nudity, much sexual and brief scatological humor, several uses of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.