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As 'Ozark' ends, Jason Bateman wants to stay behind the camera

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Jason Bateman reads the reviews. Even the negative ones. As he pulls his dark gray Tesla into a parking space at Dodger Stadium, he mentions a particularly savage write-up. There's no bitterness, more a respectful appreciation.

The review ran in the New York Times upon the 2017 premiere of "Ozark," the dark Netflix drama in which Bateman stars as financial adviser-turned-money launderer Marty Byrde.

"There were good, there were bad, but what I did not anticipate was the creativity of criticism Mike Hale put together when he described me," says Bateman, 53, his thick hair tucked under a Vin Scully baseball cap. "He basically said, this guy Jason Bateman is so boring in this character, he is like the guy who works the counter at the airport when you go to buy a ticket."

(Hale's actual language: "... played by Bateman with the aggressive blandness of an airline gate agent.")

He laughs, and it's not the gloaty, told-you-so snicker that would be absolutely acceptable considering what followed Hale's review: 44 episodes of "Ozark," a loyal audience and several Emmys, including one for Bateman for directing. What matters is that the airline agent line was a joyous slice of writing. "He just shaped that sentence in such a beautiful way," he says.

One thing the review didn't make Bateman do is question or change his performance. In the early days of "Ozark," Marty couldn't be screaming or throwing his drink across the room. The magic would be in the build, the methodical nature of his reflexive calm even as he watched his business partner get shot in the head and his wife have sex on camera with another man.

"There's a reason Marty is not hysterical," says Bateman. "Because he's the center of all the madness. I knew why I was playing it like that and where I was going with it and how that, hopefully, is going to be satisfying by the time we get to the end of the season and end of the series."

This approach to character-building has defined "Ozark" over five years of plot twists and as the series concludes — the final seven episodes have arrived — it's hard to imagine anyone snoozing during a screening. "Ozark" tells the story of the Byrde family as it relocates from Chicago to Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks so Marty can get to work laundering millions for a Mexican drug cartel. The series is packed with violence, dark humor and the not-so-passive aggression between Bateman's Marty and Laura Linney's Wendy Byrde. Early on, the couple seem to almost believe that everything they do is meant to keep their family safe. By this fourth and final season, Marty's teetering master plan has begun to collapse and his impulses finally overtake his tranquilized id. In one of the show's last episodes, he snaps in an afternoon traffic jam, springing out of the family minivan to violently beat a stranger, all to the soundtrack of Todd Rundgren's "I Saw The Light."

Again, there's no blurb-worthy self-praise from Bateman. He actually downplays his performance, describing his decision to step in front of the camera as merely practical. Overseeing "Ozark" with showrunner Chris Mundy demanded so much focus, he found playing Marty a "time saver."

"I wouldn't have to direct that actor or get into his head," says Bateman.

Not everyone agrees with that review of his performance. Actor Ryan Reynolds, a longtime friend, had a different take after watching an advance of the final episodes. That led him to text Bateman.

"You are so (expletive) good at your job, it's frightening," Reynolds wrote. "Even the moments I'm expecting a perfect Bateman comedy layup, you have the mental temerity to resist and stay with the character. It's a master class, pal, and if I actually cared about acting enough, I'd apply so many of these principles that you're laying down for me."

On a crisp April morning, Bateman walked from his house, across Mulholland Drive and into a conservation area with hiking trails.

He had already driven his girls to school and, later, he'd run his usual six miles on the treadmill above the garage. His other plans for the week would be done from a box seat behind the visitor's dugout. The Dodgers were playing the Reds in their home opener, and he would be there, consuming a couple of veggie dogs and scattering peanut shells. There was a time when Bateman got to all 81 home games, but that ended when he and his wife, producer and actress Amanda Anka, started a family. They have two daughters, Franny, 15, and Maple, 10.

Taking a seat at a picnic bench, Bateman first commiserates about how entertainment coverage has changed over the years. So much clickbait, so many minefields. Not that he reads Us Weekly. He calls himself a fanboy of Washington Post political columnist David Ignatius.

That desire for serious conversation can backfire amusingly. When "SmartLess," the podcast he does with Will Arnett and Sean Hayes went on tour earlier this year, Arnett recruited Will Ferrell as their surprise guest in D.C. and Bradley Cooper for Brooklyn. Bateman's selection for the Boston stop? The Swedish-born Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist and artificial intelligence expert Max Tegmark.

"Just a 1 hour talk with a professor," one attendee tweeted. "No music from Sean, no fun guests, nothing extra. My wife and I flew from atlanta. Now we feel stupid."

Lately, Bateman has been re-watching "Ozark" with Franny, but that's mainly because he wants to catch her up before the finale. His own viewing habits are more limited. He says he's seen maybe three episodes of "Friends" and never caught "Breaking Bad." He started watching HBO's "The Wire," but stopped after six episodes because he found it hard to get into.

"I watch MSNBC all day, until the Dodger game starts," Bateman says. "And then I watch that until I pass out and then finish the last few innings first thing in the morning, rolling into 'Morning Joe.' That's it."

His friends fittingly call him Grandpa. They take note as he comes over for dinner and searches out the microwave because, even when the food comes straight out of the oven, it could be hotter. They also laugh as he and Anka arrive for a night out in two cars, allowing him to go home early.

"Delightfully boring" is how Jimmy Kimmel describes Bateman in a phone call. "We'll go on trips together sometimes, and he's really good at putting the kids to bed because it means he gets to go to sleep at 9 o'clock."

"He likes to talk but there's a limited window," says Jennifer Aniston, another close friend who has been in five movies with Bateman, including "Horrible Bosses" and "The Switch." "When you're gathering in a group, JB gives you maybe an hour. But all of a sudden you can see that imaginary window shade sort of pull down. He's like, 'Okay, that's it. I've got my time in.'"

Marty Byrde wasn't the role that excited Bateman when he saw the first "Ozark" script from writer Bill Dubuque, best known for "The Accountant." It was the opportunity to direct "Ozark"; that's why he agreed to star. (In the end, Bateman directed only nine episodes, including the first two and the series finale, because the shooting schedule didn't allow him to both act and direct more.)

When he talks about acting, he describes a process that he's almost too comfortable with. When he talks about directing, he gets excited, talking about the challenges, the problem-solving. He takes particular pride in an early scene in "Ozark" that featured Linney behind the wheel of a boat. He sketched out the single shot on a napkin for the camera operator.

"To me, the creative challenge is bringing millions of people who have had a different day than the person sitting next to them into the theater and to have the same sort of shape curating their experiences," he says. "When does the music come in? How long are we on that shot? What's the color saturating do to set the mood? It's the difference between being first violin or the conductor."

Now that "Ozark" is done, Bateman doesn't want to talk about acting. His next job is "Project Artemis," a $100 million-plus space movie he's directing for Apple that stars Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans.

 

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