Jason Bateman plays it straight in new comedy-drama This Is Where I Leave You

Actor Jason Bateman (with Tina Fey in This Is Where I Leave You) is known for his dry sense of humour which he puts to good use in his roles. -- PHOTOS: WARNER BROS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Actor Jason Bateman (with Tina Fey in This Is Where I Leave You) is known for his dry sense of humour which he puts to good use in his roles. -- PHOTOS: WARNER BROS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

From the television show Arrested Development (2003 - 2006) to movies such as Horrible Bosses (2011), the joke is often on Jason Bateman, who has made a fine career of playing the long-suffering "straight man" in comedies.

Add to that his signature bone-dry delivery, and you have one of those Hollywood stars who effectively gets away with playing variations of the same character time and again.

The same goes for his latest film, comedy-drama This Is Where I Leave You, in which his character must deal first with his wife cheating on him and then his father dying, followed by an enforced period of mourning with his equally troubled siblings and their oversharing mother.

Speaking to Life! and other press in Los Angeles, he explains that he is attracted to roles such as this because he is "just drawn to the straight man in general".

"The straight man is us. And he is usually reacting to the funny, to the craziness. Without that, the craziness just kind of floats around and doesn't know where to land. So I just like that responsibility," says the 45-year-old, who started out as a child star with popular television series such as Silver Spoons (1982 - 1984) and Valerie/The Hogan Family (1986 - 1991).

That dry sense of humour of his, which has been put to good use in box-office hits such as Identity Thief (2013), Couples Retreat (2009) and Hancock (2008) may be partly genetic, he suggests.

"Well, my mum's British, so I got it from her and was really attracted to British humour - you know, Monty Python and stuff like that," says the star, whose father Kent and sister Justine, 48, have also worked in showbusiness. The latter is best known for the 1980s sitcom Family Ties.

The brand of slightly oblique and cerebral humour he favours was what the actor sought and found when he signed on to do the TV series Arrested Development.

His role as Michael Bluth, a man who serves as the comic foil to his crazy, selfish family, is arguably his most successful to date, winning him the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Series in 2005, one of many accolades the show received.

Yet, it was a spectacular ratings flop, even though it gradually became a cult hit with certain fans and critics - which is not dissimilar to the reaction to some of the actor's other smaller projects such as Extract, a 2009 indie film where he again plays a cuckolded average Joe just trying to do the right thing.

Still, while the actor has done many big studio movies, such as Horrible Bosses and Hancock, that have cleaned up at the box office, he says his innate preference is for stories "that have a specificity in tone, whether it's comedic or dramatic".

"While you need somewhat of a hook, because so much of the business is driven by marketing right now, I don't want to be involved with things that are just a hook. In other words, stuff that is deeply based in character is still the most attractive thing to me," he says.

This explains his reason for choosing Bad Words, another indie comedy, for his directorial debut last year.

It was a risky choice, with Bateman directing himself in the lead role of 40-year-old man who exploits a loophole so he can enter and win a spelling bee against a bunch of elementary-school children.

"It's not for everyone. I play kind of a tricky guy," he says of the character's intense unlikeability for most of the film, which garnered mixed reviews and failed to recoup its relatively small production budget of US$10 million.

His hope, however, was for the audiences to look past the character's "prickly veneer and see this is not a mean person but a wounded person who's lashing out. And certainly by the end he's apologetic and contrite".

And while he insists that becoming a director has not changed his approach to acting nor his taste in projects (he has just finished acting and directing his second film, the drama The Family Fang with Nicole Kidman) , he does admit one thing has tempered his indie sensibilities: becoming a father.

Bateman, who also stars in The Longest Week, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, tells Life! that "it would be great to do something specifically for little seven- and two-year-old girls", referring to his two daughters with wife Amanda Anka.

"I'm doing an animated film for Disney right now," he adds. "They take so long to do, but that's something that they'll both enjoy, although it's not specifically a girls' story."

"But 'four-quadrant' stuff, as they call it - movies that are kind of good for all demographics - is certainly much more on the radar for me now than it was before I had kids."

Alison de Souza