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Small(er) Movie Roundup: Total Sleazebag Edition

Jude Law in the muddled ‘Dom Hemingway,’ Jason Bateman fails to charm in ‘Bad Words,’ and the ugly, pointless brutality of ‘Sabotage.’

Dom Hemingway, directed by Richard Shepard

With the Matthew McConaughey redemption cycle complete, professional rooters will be looking for a new, fully rehabbed Hollywood comeback. Jude Law makes a good candidate. True, “The Lawnaissnance” doesn’t roll willingly off the tongue, but in the last five years, Law, 41, has been doing clever, intense work in everything from science-fiction mishaps like Repo Men to Joe Wright’s toothsome, refrigerated version of Anna Karenina. Twice, he was excellent in Steven Soderbergh thrillers, as a conspiracy nut in Contagion and a shrink who removes the wool from his eyes in Side Effects. He even made it through a pair of Sherlock Holmes movies without appearing to hold his nose. Law seems to have a distaste for likability. Mostly, he likes to get dirty and suffer — to lose or to come thisclose to losing.

In 2009, he played Hamlet, one of art’s most epic losers, onstage in London and on Broadway. I can only assume that after that, you’re looking for parts with a little Prince of Denmark in them — some bluster and some pity, some blood, sweat, and tears. Richard Shepard’s comedy, which opens Wednesday, gets Law close. It’s the tale of a vigorously lewd, frequently drunk safecracker freshly hatched from prison after a dozen years. He’s picked up by an old partner (Richard E. Grant), and the two head to a French château owned by his employer (Demián Bichir), who remained free because Dom opted for altruism. Now our hero wants his money if he’s going to remain silent.

Shepard’s writing here has the self-conscious decorousness that a certain kind of crime movie likes. It’s parboiled. He keeps swinging for these kinds of films — The Matador (2005) had Pierce Brosnan as a beached assassin; The Hunting Party was more of a political thriller, with Richard Gere and Terrence Howard. Even though Law, Grant, and Bichir take different routes to making Shepard’s floridness sound good (their approach is to become gardeners), you still don’t believe it. The movie keeps crashing into crude shtick, cliché, and mawkishness. Its one great set piece involves a car flinging the actors through the night air in very slow motion. That’s the sort of inspired image around which a director can build a whole movie, but in this case it leads only to the sort of fitful, wheezing character study we have here. Ultimately, Dom decides to explore reconnection with an estranged daughter — Emilia Clarke, who’s about 15 years younger than Law — and things turn gooey before they ever go dark.

Law, though, is something to see. He’s got thick legs, muttonchop sideburns, and hair that’s been slicked back. He’s well attired, which creates a nice contrast with the thug he’s playing — even toward the end, when he spouts vulgarities in front of a small child while slumping over a grave. I don’t know what Law is playing in this movie (imperviousness? regret?), and the actor is content to leave his character an asshole. But the movie wants to send you home feeling charmed. Is this how the Lawnaissance begins?

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Bad Words, directed by Jason Bateman

You know who does wants to be liked — and not just because he’s likable, but because, after so many hits, he feels entitled to our adoration? Jason Bateman. He’s an actor who’s forged a smug kind of stardom playing pissed-off sticks-in-the-mud. Bateman tends to work surrounded by actors playing worse people than he is, which allows him a backhanded nobility. He’s never as criminal, corrupt, stupid, selfish, or evil as the characters in his vicinity. And now he’s directed a comedy that lets him play selfish and wrong, but never quite worthy of arrest. His character gets to be technically right, which matters when you’re a 40-year-old man crashing a national spelling bee.

Bateman is playing Guy Trilby, who inflames the world of amateur spelling by exploiting loopholes in the contest guidelines and getting to the finals. On his way there, he befriends a small Indian American contestant, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), and starts sleeping with the journalist (Kathryn Hahn) trying to write a story about him. The script is by Andrew Dodge, and there is a way a good comedy could have sprung from the premise; but Bad Words banks on Bateman’s obnoxiousness. It needs us to find his racism, misogyny, callousness, and impropriety funny.

Bateman isn’t much of comedian. He excels at being a part of situations, tweaking the settings on the straight-man routine so that the starchiness has been partially replaced with bile. Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler might have gotten more out of this part. They would have turned Guy into a savant or an id. With Bateman, the character is cavalier about everything. There is, alas, a method to his madness. I didn’t like anything about the movie before discovering what Guy is up to. I actively hated it after I figured out what was actually going on — which, incidentally, is a mockery of emotional twists.

The parental-anger assignment is given to Rachael Harris, as the infuriated mother of another contestant. Viewers have been trained to see her as a brom-com buzzkill — she was Ed Helms’s wife in The Hangover ­— and Harris’s rationality is meant to look like bitchiness. The kid, meanwhile, has to tolerate being called “Chai Latte” and “Slumdog” because, here, they’re terms of endearment that little Chand just keeps smiling past. Guy takes the boy to bars and lets him drink (in the obligatory fun montage scored to the Beastie Boys). Why do the boy’s parents allow Guy to get near their son? It’s a secret! Even after its disclosure, the movie sees the relationship as sweetly inappropriate. But despite all of the adult’s petulant scowling and performed disdain for the boy, the scenes between these two could double as a screen test for NAMBLA.

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Sabotage, directed by David Ayer

Almost everybody in this shoot-’em-all-the-way-up is awful. But David Ayer seems to thrive on hellishness. He’s committed to dramatizing and detonating the festering morality of America’s law enforcement entities. (He wrote Training Day and directed Harsh Times, End of Watch, and the enthrallingly absurd Street Kings.) Here, it’s the DEA. Arnold Schwarzenegger, wearing a neck tattoo and a meager side part, heads a team of overeager, heavily armed agents. They hit a drug kingpin and stash $10 million from his piles of cash. When the stash goes missing, the agency disbands Schwarzenegger’s crew.

When the investigation simply ends (Ayer’s screenplay, with Skip Woods, wasn’t written so much as randomized), the team is allowed to reunite just in time for some vengeful group to start picking people off. These assassins must have been salivating. The entrées include Josh Holloway; Max Martini (the head SEAL from Captain Phillips); Joe Manganiello; Terrence Howard; Mireille Enos, playing feral and drugged-out; and Sam Worthington, with beard plait and ink all over his bald head.

I don’t know what Ayer is trying to prove by dunking the camera in spilled guts and having it linger over charred and frozen corpses. It doesn’t make him any more macho a director and doesn’t make the film any more “real.” Sabotage is almost as nauseating as Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, in which Denzel Washington licensed himself to go Training Day all over the Amazon. But Ayer doesn’t share Scott’s obsession with using testosterone the way Jackson Pollock used paint. And even Scott never worked with a script this leaky and distractible.

The investigating detectives — played by Olivia Williams and Harold Perrineau — are sufficiently blinded by Schwarzenegger’s reputation. But the story never turns into a proper enough mystery to make him a true suspect. Williams is a smart English actress who doesn’t know what to do with the short haircut, the pantsuits, the Southern accent, the kissing of the Governator. Sabotage is a so-so action thriller before she shows up. Her performance takes it somewhere accidentally interesting. Not since Connie Nielsen in Basic have I seen a European actress so completely miscast as an American law-enforcement official trying to solve a heinous crime.

Schwarzenegger headlines this movie more than he stars in it. He does eventually get a grisly, spirit-crushing scene of havoc all to himself — it’s him versus a bar full of Mexican stereotypes. But I had long since checked out, namely about two scenes before, after seeing a character wield an automatic rifle while perched in the trunk of a speeding (and doomed) car. At that bar, Schwarzenneger appears to enjoy reliving the old times. Arnold never gets too old for this shit, even if this shit is getting too old for him.