Jason Bateman’s Long, Strange Trip to the Top

Bateman somehow escaped where-are-they-now status

By Alonso Duralde
|  Thursday, Sep 3, 2009  |  Updated 3:15 AM EDT
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Jason Bateman’s current career success stands as a statistical anomaly, yes, but it’s also the result of hard work and dues-payment.

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Remember that infamous magazine piece about 20 years ago that stated that the odds were better for a woman over 30 to be killed by a terrorist than to get married for the first time? The numbers aren’t much better for young TV performers who want to be taken seriously in show business after their 20th birthday.

For every Mark-Paul Gosselaar (who survived “Saved by the Bell” to be almost constantly employed as an adult, currently on TNT’s “Raising the Bar”) or Alyssa Milano (who went from wise-cracking “Who’s the Boss?” youngster to all-grown-up temptress on “Charmed” and “My Name is Earl”), there are dozens of teens who go from sitcom stardom to “Where Are They Now?” tabloid features seemingly overnight.

All of which is to say that Jason Bateman’s current career success stands as a statistical anomaly, yes, but it’s also the result of hard work and dues-payment.

To fully appreciate the path that took him from spending his adolescence on the small screen to becoming a respected an in-demand adult comic performer in movies like “Juno,” “Hancock” and “Extract,” it’s worth revisiting the cards that were stacked against him.

Bateman survived ‘Cousin Oliver’ syndrome
Cousin Oliver, of course, was the distant relative who joined the cast for the last season of “The Brady Bunch,” once the regular Brady kids started hitting puberty and losing their child-like cuteness. The arrival of a new character often spells doom for a TV series, signaling that the original concept of the show has been played out and that new blood is desperately required to keep the enterprise afloat.

Bateman’s first big TV gig was as James Cooper (later James Cooper Ingalls) on the long-running “Little House on the Prairie.” Introduced at the end of the show’s seventh season (of a total nine), James and his sister Cassandra lost their parents in a wagon accident, leading to the Ingalls eventually adopting them both. The inclusion of these new characters were clearly meant to appeal to young audiences once the original Ingalls daughters were growing up and getting married, but Bateman’s new-kid-on-the-block status didn’t impede his early rise to fame.

Almost as many canceled series as Robert Urich
After finishing up his “Prairie” duties, the young actor had a successful stint on the first season of “Silver Spoons” and eventually spent five years on “Valerie”/“Valerie’s Family”/“The Hogan Family.”

And though it’s easy to do, let’s not forget all the other Bateman TV series that fell by the wayside. His “Spoons” gig led to his being cast as one of the leads on “It’s Your Move,” a brilliantly-conceived sitcom that, sadly, never found an audience. (Where’s the DVD box on this one?) Bateman played a conniving teen who found his equal in mom’s new boyfriend, and each episode had these two champion schemers perpetually facing off against each other. Too smart for its own good, “It’s Your Move” lasted but a season.

Less acclaimed but obviously more successful was “Valerie,” which endured the departure of its lead actress, Valerie Harper, who was eventually replaced by Sandy Duncan; the upheaval up top allowed Bateman to grow into his own as a young comic lead (and the show made the then-18-year-old actor the youngest member of the Directors Guild of America when he directed three episodes).

After “V”/“VF”/“TGH” bit the dust in 1991, however, Bateman hit a lengthy cold streak, starring in four barely-remembered sitcoms — “Simon,” “Chicago Sons,” “George & Leo” and “Some of My Best Friends” — none of which lasted longer than a season. This writer can attest that Bateman maintained a sense of humor about his career through it all; we spoke before “Best Friends” — a TV spinoff of the indie comedy “Kiss Me, Guido” — aired, and Bateman chuckled ruefully about some of the heavy-handed “very special episodes” of “Hogan Family.”

His luck finally changed with the 2003 debut of “Arrested Development,” which starred Bateman as Michael Bluth, scion of an exceedingly dysfunctional wealthy family. Michael was the sort of person who’s too wishy-washy to stand up to his nakedly greedy and selfish siblings and parents yet also too moral to sink to their level. (Bateman’s character in “Extract” is carved from the same tower of Jell-O.)

It was a role that perfectly matched the actor’s talent for slow-burn self-deprecation, and despite the calm (easily mistaken for bland) straight-man nature of the role, Bateman’s comic flair kept him from being obscured by the show’s extraordinary ensemble, which included Will Arnett, Jessica Walter, David Cross, Michael Cera, Portia de Rossi and Jeffrey Tambor.

It’s because of “Arrested Development” that Bateman has once again become a hot commodity, and the strength of his work in that show and in subsequent movie roles has allowed him to transcend one fact.

Bateman starred in one of the worst movies ever made
You were probably spared from ever seeing “Breaking All the Rules,” and if you have any respect for the actor or for your own sanity, don’t ever be tempted to watch it. Bateman, Jonathan Silverman and C. Thomas Howell star as three estranged childhood best buddies who reunite to go on a cross-country road trip when one of them announces that he’s dying.

It’s a film so utterly smarmy and distasteful that you’ll find yourself wishing that all of the characters, and the clerk at the video store who rented it to you, were also not long for this Earth.

(And let’s be honest, “Teen Wolf, Too” wasn’t all that great, either.) 

After all that, the highs and the very lows, Jason Bateman has become the go-to guy for smart, sharp comic relief. And whether he’s a lead (“Extract”), part of a talented cast (“State of Play,” the underrated family film “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”) or the one member of the cast who keeps you from wanting to run from the theater, screaming (“Hancock”), he’s left his child-star past behind him and become a very in-demand adult actor.

Before year’s end, he’ll be turning up in three eagerly-anticipated movies, opposite Ricky Gervais in “The Invention of Lying,” in Jason Reitman’s “Juno” follow-up “Up in the Air” and in the ensemble romantic comedy “Couples Retreat.” Not bad for a guy who once rivaled Kirk Cameron as a cover subject for Tiger Beat magazine.

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.

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