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2017/09/03

Jason Bateman: Actor & Director

by Jav Rivera

As a child of the '80s, I grew up with a lot of high-concept sitcoms. Shows like "Diff'rent Strokes" or "Silver Spoons" focused on wealthy families trying to relate to the commoners. More often than not these involved children who helped bridge that gap. And for every good kid there was always a snotty bad kid. For "Silver Spoons," that character was Derek Taylor, played by child actor Jason Bateman.

Jason Bateman as Derek Taylor and Ricky Schroder as Ricky Stratton
Even as a kid, I leaned towards Bateman's character. I didn't agree with his villainy per se, but I thought Derek was a more compelling character than Ricky. Bateman, as an actor, didn't seem to play to the camera as much as Schroder. So it came as no surprise when I learned (as an adult) that the reason Bateman was replaced in the second season was due to the fact that NBC was concerned about Bateman's popularity outshining Schroder's. "Silver Spoons" continued on for another four seasons, and Bateman got his own show, "It's Your Move." It didn't last long, but it would be one of the many projects that began to shape the actor and future director.

Jason Bateman got his big break on the Michael Landon series "Little House on the Prairie." From there he was cast in small roles in a variety of other television shows. Eventually, he landed the Derek role on "Silver Spoons." This is when his popularity started to grow. Though recognizable, none of his shows lasted much more than one season.

Valerie Harper and Bateman ("Valerie")
That is until "Valerie," starring Valerie Harper. The series lasted 6 seasons, from 1986 - 1991, and was where Bateman got his first chance working behind the scenes. Bateman may have only directed three episodes, but at the age of 18, he was the youngest member of the Directors Guild of America.

Now that Bateman had directing experience on "Valerie," he went on to direct other shows including "Family Matters," "Brother's Keeper," "Two of a Kind," "For Your Love" and "Do Not Disturb." The early-to-mid '90s weren't Bateman's most popular era during his career, but then he was given a gift from Mitchell Hurwitz in the form of the much-loved series "Arrested Development." For those of you who aren't familiar, the show follows the Bluths, a wealthy, dysfunctional family who lost everything. Bateman plays Michael Bluth, the one son who's trying to save the company, and essentially, the family as well. The show was a success as far as fans, critics, and several awards, but unfortunately it couldn't get the viewership needed for FOX to keep it on the air. It was cancelled after three seasons but fan support brought it back, this time as a Netflix (semi) Original series.

It's hard to shed new light on "Arrested Development" since so many articles have already been written about it. And justly so. It's in my top three favorite shows and most of the show's fans are devoted, hardcore lovers of the Bluth family. The cast includes Tony Hale (as Buster), Alia Shawkat (as Maeby), Michael Cera (as George Michael), Jessica Walter (as Lucille), Jeffrey Tambor (as George Sr.), Portia de Rossi (as Lindsay), David Cross (as Tobias), Will Arnett (as GOB), and Ron Howard (as the Narrator).

What's interesting is that Bateman almost didn't get the role of Michael, due to his waning career at the time. But after he auditioned, Mitchell Hurwitz, who created the series, didn't want anyone else. In an interview, Hurwitz stated that he was so impressed by Bateman's portrayal that he ran down the hall to tell Bateman not to audition for a different series. I honestly couldn't imagine Michael Bluth played by anyone else. And just like Bateman, I couldn't imagine any of these actors being replaced.

L-R: Tony Hale (Buster), Alia Shawkat (Maeby), Michael Cera (George Michael), Jessica Walter (Lucille), Bateman (Michael),
Jeffrey Tambor (George Sr.), Portia de Rossi (Lindsay), David Cross (Tobias), and Will Arnett (GOB)
Bateman directed one of my favorite "Arrested Development" episodes entitled "Afternoon Delight" (season 2, episode 6). This, I think, is where Bateman began to use editing as a comedic tool. There's a running joke in the episode about GOB Bluth's expensive suit. GOB, played by Will Arnett, argues that his suit deems him worthy of avoiding any social interactions and physical labor. Not only is the joke funny because of how many times it's used, but also how GOB's sentence gets edited throughout the episode.

Scene from "Arrested Development" L-R: Jessica Walter, Will Arnett, and Jason Bateman
For me, this felt like Bateman's comeback. Since "Arrested Development" in 1999, Bateman has had a steady work of great films including Juno, Extract, Up in the Air, and the popular Horrible Bosses. He's also taken on more serious projects like Shawn Levy's 2014 film This Is Where I Leave You and Joel Edgerton's eerie 2015 film, The Gift. But I have to mention his scene-stealing bit part on Joe Carnahan's 2006 film Smokin' Aces. I'm sure the makeup department deserves some credit for making his character Rip Reed look as disgusting as possible, but it's Bateman's performance that stands out.



This is where I first noticed Bateman's hidden abilities. He's mostly worked on comedies, and usually plays the straight man character, but there seems to be a lot more to him. He's lent his voice to various animated series including "King of the Hill," "Justice League Unlimited," and the under-appreciated series "Sit Down Shut Up" which deserved many more seasons. He was also the uncredited narrator for the NBC series "Growing Up Fisher" starring J.K. Simmons, and voiced the fox, Nick Wilde, in Disney's Zootopia.

In 2010, I remember seeing posters all around town for his film The Switch with Jennifer Aniston. I didn't know anything about the movie and figured it was another stereotypical romantic comedy, so I didn't bother with it. Many years later I found it on Netflix and upon remembering the poster, I decided to give it a shot. Since that day, I've watched The Switch half a dozen times, and it never gets old.

Bateman stars as Wally, an introverted man with harsh personality traits and a bleak outlook on life; of course he describes himself as a realist. Jennifer Aniston co-stars as Kassie, a woman who's reached a point where she's ready for a baby, despite being single. She decides to go through an artificial insemination procedure and asks her best friend, Wally, to help her find a donor.

Seemingly unnoticed, Aniston and Bateman have worked together on several films, each time as very different characters in very different relationships. The two have always had great chemistry onscreen so it was nice to finally see them in such an intimate partnership. The Switch does tread on rom-com waters but it's such a unique story with heart-warming performances that I never felt like I was watching a trendy date movie. Besides the two leads and their supporting cast, Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis, and Patrick Wilson, there's another actor who made the movie stand out: Thomas Robinson, as Kassie's son Sebastian.



As odd as it may be to think this, there's something really cute about a child having such introspective -- and often negative -- thoughts. Maybe it's just the way Robinson delivers his lines. And although the entire movie is great, I mostly love the scenes between Bateman and Robinson. The two played off of each other naturally, and in their own way the two created an onscreen bond much like that of Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry from the film Kramer vs. Kramer. In fact, there's even homage to the 1979 film in a scene where Bateman and Robinson are making pancakes together. For me, The Switch is one of those movies that I'm ready to re-watch as soon as it ends.

In the past few years, Bateman has widened his talents seemingly under the radar. In 2013, Bateman starred in and directed the film Bad Words. Though he had directed several TV shows, this was his first feature film, and in my opinion, a successful debut. It walks a fine line between comedy and drama without ever watering down either genre.

Bateman stars as Guy Tribly, a forty-something spelling bee contestant competing against children. His character comes across as crude for nearly the entire film and Bateman plays the character unapologetically. Whether he's trash talking his competition, like telling a boy that his parents are getting a divorce or psyching out a girl about her first period (using a packet of ketchup), Tribly's not at all concerned about how he wins. It co-stars Philip Baker Hall, Rohan Chand, and the always great Kathryn Hahn.

We're introduced to Tribly's world through one of his spelling bee competitions and a narration by his character. Without revealing too much, the narration sets the stage for a somewhat mysterious character and his many poor choices. On a side note, the marketing department nailed it perfectly when they created the movie poster for Bad Words, a close-up photo of Bateman in mid-sentence. And it's safe to say that the next word begins with an "F". I don't know whose idea it was, but I really hope it was Bateman himself, as it embodies the character and film in a very unflattering way.

Already a fan of Bateman's acting, I was beyond impressed by Bad Words and hoped he would direct more. Then just a few months ago, out of nowhere, I discovered his second feature film as a director, The Family Fang, on the STARZ app. It was technically completed in September of 2015, but I never knew about it until recently. Talk about under the radar! In my defense, the film had a limited release in the United States, roughly 50 movie theatres in 2016.

The Family Fang focuses on a family of performance artists whose parents go the extreme to justify their art. Once again Bateman both starred and directed, but this time he co-stars with some heavy hitters. Nicole Kidman, who bought the rights for the novel by Kevin Wilson on which the film is based, also stars as Bateman's sister. Their father is played by Christopher Walken, who could have easily been awarded for his performance, Kidman too for that matter. Maryann Plunkett plays their present day mother. In the flashback scenes, Kathryn Hahn and Jason Butler Harner play their younger mother and father. Hahn and Harner shine as the younger versions, matching extremely well with the Walken and Plunkett versions.

Like Bad Words, The Family Fang plays with both comedy and drama elements, though because of the storyline the film falls more into the drama category. Credit is due to Bateman's performance as well, but it's his direction that deserves the accolades. Bateman expertly blends the past and present as we are slowly given insight into all the characters. It seems as if Bateman has already honed his skills as a director in the short couple years since Bad Words. So what came next for Bateman? Netflix.

In July of 2017, the Netflix Original series "Ozark" was released. Bateman stars as the main character Marty Byrde, a money launderer whose partner gets him into hot water with the Mexican cartel. Bateman channels a much darker and more layered character than he's ever played. His performance alone has already gained some positive attention. His cast mates, also turning some heads, include Laura Linney (The Truman Show) as Marty's wife and Jason Butler Harner (The Family Fang) as an obsessed FBI agent. They're supported by Julia Garner (We Are What We Are) as Ruth, a 19-year old criminal out to steal Marty's cartel money, Skylar Gaertner ("Daredevil") as Marty's 13-year old son Jonah, Sofia Hublitz as Marty's 15-year old daughter Charlotte, and veteran actor Harris Yulin as the Byrde's live-in tenant Buddy. That doesn't even begin to cover all the supporting actors who help make this one of the best -- and darkest -- Netflix Originals to date.


In fact, the series is so good that I've already watched all ten episodes twice, catching more the second time. Bateman directed four of the ten episodes including the first ("Sugarwood") and last ("The Toll"). He's clearly got a handle on his directing skills and it would seem a waste if he didn't continue. It was recently announced that the show has been renewed for a second season, and though the future of "Ozark" after that hasn't been determined yet, executive producer Chris Mundy envisions a total of five seasons if Netflix agrees to it. I personally hope that happens.

Bateman has long-since established himself as a film and television star. Following his career, you can see the stages of his development as an actor and director. Though only 48 years old, he's already a screen veteran, and one of the few success stories of child actors. I imagine he will continue acting, especially with new "Arrested Development" episodes on the way, and I hope that his directing career has just started.

For more information, visit IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000867

TRIVIA: Jason Bateman's co-star from "Valerie," Steve Witting, has appeared in many of Bateman's projects including Bad Words, The Family Fang, and "Ozark."