Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), Bad Words' protagonist, in the loosest possible sense that one could employ the word "protagonist," appears to be fairly wretched excuse for a human being. Sure, he's taking advantage of an unfortunate loophole in the rules for a fictionalized National Spelling Bee — he has not yet completed eighth grade, just like the rules say — in order to compete as a 40-year-old against a bunch of middle-schoolers. But that's the least of his sins.
He treats every other person around him like garbage, including web-based journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), who's sponsoring him in exchange for an exclusive story about his perplexing quest that he steadfastly refuses to provide. He hurls the saltiest possible language around every room he occupies. He engages in psychological warfare with fellow contestants that borders on child abuse.
Transgressive comedy is a rich and wonderful tradition, and plenty of entries in recent years have centered around characters who at least initially come off as fairly unpleasant, like Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa and Johnny Knoxville's Bad Grandpa. But there's a delicate balance to be struck between reveling in these characters' most outrageous behavior and providing some reason not to consider them more villain than hero. Bateman, also serving as director of his first feature, delivers plenty of the cringe-worthy punch lines, but by the time he gets around to explaining why Guy is such a gigantic tool, he's made it too hard to salvage anything sympathetic.
Part of the strategy, it seems, is simply to make everyone around Guy look like just as much of a head case as he is. Jenny turns into a demanding freak when having sex; the spelling bee's director (Allison Janney) responds to the complaints from outraged parents by trying to stack the deck against Guy. And there are plenty of other secrets left to trickle out about other characters so that perhaps Guy's toxic view of the world can come off as justified.
The other main part of the strategy is giving the misanthropic main character a kid who absorbs his worst behavior with smiling good humor. That's Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), a 10-year-old fellow contestant and lonely prodigy. Initially, he's just another pathetic potential distraction for Guy; then Guy becomes almost a surrogate father figure, doing cool-dad stuff like taking Chaitanya to a hooker so he can get his first look at boobs. It's the closest Bad Words comes to having Guy not come off like a complete waste of humanity.
The film counts on the set-pieces focused around Guy's nastiness to be funny enough to get us over their cruelty, but that's not always the case. What we eventually learn about Guy may justify his insistence on participating in a showcase for adolescents, but it doesn't explain away his monstrosity.
Of course, this is a comedy, and everyone's comedy mileage may vary. Maybe it's funny enough in bursts to allow some viewers to overlook Guy's mean streak. But there comes a point where the sour taste left by so much rancid behavior just can't be sweetened enough by some hearty chuckles and an eventual tour through Guy's sob-story motivation.
It's not that every story needs a happy ending, but it helps if the guy we're following through a comedy isn't someone who inspires primarily the desire for him to get a well-deserved smack in the face.