Who doesn’t love Jason Bateman? His “improbable comeback” narrative — from overworked child actor to irrelevancy to Arrested Development — is delightful. His general demeanor — a potent mix of low-level surliness and reluctant empathy — is a treat (just ask Ryan Reynolds: “He has a treasure trove of stories from the wild days that will leave you laughing, crippled, in a puddle of your own bodily fluids”), and his track record on the big screen well, his track record on the big screen’s actually not as overwhelmingly positive as his persona. Post-AD he’s been extremely active, moving from supporting roles in films like Hancock and The Kingdom to lead roles in both ensembles like Couples Retreat and rom-coms like The Switch. And yet, despite all those many opportunities to flash that caustic charm, he’s yet to topline a real definitive smash success. So does Bateman have what it takes to cash in on all that potential? With his latest team effort, Horrible Bosses, in theaters today, Vulture asked industry insiders the weekly Star Market question: If Jason Bateman were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: As far as the Star Market is concerned, we can skip over the early days: not because Teen Wolf Too isn’t worth mentioning, of course, but because as far as Jason’s bankability right now goes, everything before Arrested Development doesn’t really matter. In 2007, the year after AD was canceled, Bateman’s big roles were small ones. In relation to Bateman’s career, shoot-em-up Smoking Aces ($57 million worldwide box office) and war drama The Kingdom ($86 million) both came and went. His role in Juno, though, was a bit of a game-changer. The movie was a smash ($230 million), but more important, it was an Oscar-awarded (for Diablo Cody’s writing, but hey) critical darling that let Bateman show off his chops in a meaty role. In 2008, Bateman played it cautiously, taking a supporting role in Hancock, which, considering Will Smith’s involvement, was a box office no-brainer. ($624 million!) In 2009, Bateman started taking on leading-man roles. Most notable was the Mike Judge workplace comedy Extract, Bateman’s first out-and-out lead since — okay, fine, this was inevitable, one supposes — Teen Wolf Too. It did not do very well! A measly $10 million box-office haul and a generally meh response from critics. Couples Retreat — technically an ensemble, although Vince Vaughn was a bit more equal than others — cushioned the blow, raking in $171 million. And then The Switch seesawed Bateman back down a bit: It banked both so-so reviews (52% on Rotten Tomatoes) and box-office numbers ($49 million).
Peers: Bateman is at the bottom of the list of top comedy stars presided over by Adam Sandler (44), Vince Vaughn (41), Ben Stiller (45), Will Ferrell (43), Kevin James (46), Steve Carell (48), and Owen Wilson (42). He fares better among actors like Jason Sudeikis (35), Ed Helms (37), and other more-recent TV crossover folks.
Market Value: He’s been in both commercial and critical successes, but he’s never carried a movie in either category by himself. That means his only proven value right now is in ensembles, which sort of makes him an interchangeable part, albeit a charming one. (Pair him up with other funny people and your movie might succeed?) Horrible Bosses, another ensemble, won’t change that, no matter how it does, but some of Bateman’s upcoming projects might. First, there’s body-switching comedy The Change-Up, in which Bateman co-stars with Ryan Reynolds. If that should break out, it would give both actors a bump. More promising is The Insane-laws, a Jeremy Garelick comedy that Vaughn is both starring in and producing at Universal. It’s not yet been green-lighted, but unlike Bateman’s turn in The Break-Up (also written by Garelick and also starring Vaughn), Insane-laws is a leading, not supporting role. If it becomes Wedding Crashers it could help boost Bateman’s stock in trade.
What Hollywood Says: “Like Paul Rudd is the everyman to Apatow movies,” explains one top producer, “[Bateman] is the ubiquitous everyman to all other comedies … He is appealing as ‘just one of the guys’ — Ryan Reynolds’s married friend in The Change-Up; one part of a couple in Couples Retreat; the Prius-driving, stick-in-the-mud in Horrible Bosses. The problem is that when he carries a movie, even one as seemingly easy as one long hit to the ball joke, like [Mike Judge’s little-seen] Extract, Bateman is bite-less.”
That is, unlike Rudd, who stepped out of the ensemble cast shadows to shine brightly in I Love You, Man, Bateman has not proven he can open a movie, despite having been given a couple chances (most recently in The Switch) to do so. That’s a problem for those who want to believe Bateman is a growth stock.
“He’s a solid comedic/romantic-comedic actor who is leading-man handsome enough to get co-leads opposite bigger-name actors, like Jen Aniston or Vince Vaughn or Ryan Reynolds,” says another agent, “but I don’t know if he’s really proven himself when it’s just hanging on him. Perhaps he’s been smart enough not to do that, as he always seems to be working with great people, while not quite being the lead of the film.”
As a result, continues this agent, “I don’t know that he means that much to a studio just by himself. I tend to think he’s doing exactly what he should be doing — which ain’t bad in the grand scheme of things.”
“He’s definitely come a long way from Valerie’s Family, and reinvented himself as Michael Bluth in Arrested Development,” says the producer, “but like both, he was well surrounded with other great talents and that’s what works best for him. Therefore: Stick to the formula, Bateman.”
But another top agent disagrees, insisting that Bateman’s indie work suggests that he could have a much brighter future than playing second-banana roles in studio pablum.“He’s making odd choices for a talented guy with such good looks,” says one dissenting agent. “He should think Jack Lemmon–type roles, not these sophomoric comedies like The Switch or Horrible Bosses. More intelligent parts, like he did in Juno, Up in the Air and Arrested Development, but as a leading man, not a supporting actor.”
Indeed, a top talent manager of gross-participant actors and directors e-mailed to insist, “I love him! Good things ahead for that guy. Wish I repped him!”
The Analysis: Jason Bateman is an immensely likable actor who has never successfully toplined a movie. Because of the goodwill he engenders, one hopes that it’s just a matter of time before Bateman finds the perfect material and catapults himself into the next echelon of stardom. But there’s not much indication that’s going to happen, or that Bateman is even trying to make that happen. Bateman seems content not to overreach, continually picking projects where he’s paired with another actor — Jennifer Aniston in The Switch, Ryan Reynolds in The Change-Up — who can shoulder some of the burden, and bounty. This is a safe, sound strategy for someone looking to sustain a long, even-keeled career, but not one that puts you atop the A-list.
Bottom line: It’s not yet clear whether Bateman’s problem as a growth stock is his luck or his appetite. But either way: There is a problem.
Rating: Hold / Weak Sell.