In the early part of his career, Jason Bateman was known as the cute, sandy-haired boy from the wholesome TV family. Beginning with Little House on the Prairie and taking it through Silver Spoons (where as the best friend character, he became part of the extended family) and Valerie, he wore that role like it was his own skin. Only as he aged (like with 2001’s Some of my Best Friends) did he start to include sarcasm into his portrayals, opening up a world of possibilities for him to steal scenes in a number of feature films.
In 2002’s The Sweetest Thing, Bateman’s crass, horndog brother was the perfect snort-worthy anecdote to Thomas Jane’s dry goofball. In a movie filled with overly dramatic and dislikeable characters, Bateman brought a level of sincerity to the silliness, making it impossible not to laugh out loud when he got escorted out of the club, told his brother not to “be gay in God’s house,” or sang a remarkably sober wedding band version of “Eternal Flame.” Where it would have been easy for a lesser actor to get lost in the female buddy comedy, Bateman’s knack for comic timing and delivery was actually a positive for the film as a whole, taking the tone down a notch and making at least one relationship (that between him and Jane) feel believable. While the film itself certainly didn’t break any records, it set Bateman on track for a long and lucrative big screen career.
As Pepper Brooks in 2004’s Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Bateman was back playing the cocky, pompous, self-assured d-bag one can only love in the movies. His sideline commentary was completely nonsensical, as he chomped on gum and grinned like he just didn’t care that Gary Cole was shooting him annoyed looks from the adjacent seat. His carefree attitude and wide smile made you love him, and every time you shook your head in response to some inane comment he made, you laughed, too.
Playing a character (Rip Reed) pent up in a hotel room in 2006’s Smokin’ Aces, Bateman could have been a metaphor for the frenetically charged, high octane, tweaker of a film itself. He spoke in drawn out, seemingly Tourette’s induced monologues; sweaty and squinty-eyed, he was manic and A.D.D., and despite all of the chaos, he still managed to command attention during the mere minutes he was on screen. With so many characters flitting in and out—and so many bullets flying around-- they were all expendable, but Bateman grabbed onto something in the audience and implanted himself in their subconscious. Even if his character was not so lucky, his scenes would stick around in their memories.
2006’s The Ex, a blink-and-you-missed-its-release romantic? comedy about a guy (Zach Braff) who becomes increasingly, insanely jealous of his wife’s ex-boyfriend when they are forced to move back to her hometown, and he is forced to work alongside the ex (who is, of course, Bateman). In this case, Bateman is just one in a sea of fine supporting actors (Charles Grodin, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd), but he manages to stand out for the earnest way he once again plays a sleazebag. Even though you should be rooting for Braff to keep his marriage afloat, when the “other guy” is Bateman, that’s damn near impossible. Maybe it’s incredible method acting or maybe it’s his natural boyish charm, but everything he touches turns to gold.
2007’s The Kingdom was a slightly different side to Bateman, who was still comic relief but this time in a very serious setting. Playing a member of a government team sent into Riyadh to investigate the bombing of an American base, for the first time, his sometimes snide humor was gentler, subtler, and quieter. He offered a chance to smile warmly as a break from the suspense. And with his proven track record at spicing up everything from gross-out comedies to heavy, based on real life dramas, there is no doubt Bateman’s yet another supporting role in Hancock (taking theaters by storm July 2) will be a hit with critics and fans alike. Though it can be said that really all he’s doing is just playing the same character over and over again, how can one argue with such a winning formula?