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The Greatness of the Jason Bateman Face

The star of ‘Game Night’ is an actor of many talents, but none are greater than what he can do with his signature facial expression

Ringer GIF

This is a GIF from a comedy called The Change-Up. It’s going to appear three times in this article.

The Change-Up came out in 2011. It starred Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds. Bateman played a responsible, polite husband and father named Dave. Reynolds played an irresponsible and rude single man named Mitch. The two ended up accidentally switching bodies (they were peeing into a fountain together after an evening of drinking and then both, at the exact same time, said, “I wish I had your life,” and then lightning struck and then they switched bodies that night while asleep, because you can do whatever you want in movies, turns out).

The movie was mostly crushed by critics. (At the moment, it has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 25 percent.) And also it didn’t earn a lot of money. (It brought in just $37.1 million domestically against a budget of $52 million.) And so probably most would say that it was bad, or that it was a bust. I, however, would not call it either of those things. Two reasons:

For one: I am very much a fan of the body-swapping premise in movies: old people switching bodies with young people (like, say, 1987’s Like Father Like Son); men switching bodies with women (like, say, 2006’s It’s a Boy Girl Thing); white people inhabiting the bodies of black people (2017’s Get Out); humans switching bodies with dogs (2006’s The Shaggy Dog) and dolls (1988’s Child’s Play), and so on. It’s just a fun thing to think about, is all. And I’m not that strict about the requirements either. You don’t even need two people, or even two bodies, really. You can take one person and switch him or her overnight (like 1988’s Big, or 2004’s 13 Going on 30, a personal favorite because there’s a scene in it where Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo do the dance from “Thriller”). You can switch just the faces (1997’s Face/Off), or even just the jobs (1983’s Trading Places). It’s all great. I’m in. (To be clear, this isn’t to say that all of these kinds of movies are great, because that’d be inaccurate. Some of them are downright bad. It’s just to say it’s an interesting idea.)

For two: I love Jason Bateman. He’s fantastic. He’s a smart, charming, funny actor, and his walk toward movie stardom since his run as Michael Bluth on the sitcom Arrested Development has been something that I have actively rooted for. So if you’ve got the body-swap premise in one hand, and then you mush that together with a starring role for Jason Bateman in the other hand, then — well, buddy, you’re going to need to grow a third hand so you can take my money from me as I pay for my opening-weekend ticket.

You know what the best thing is about Jason Bateman, and I mean even better than that disarming smile of his, and better than his I’m Your Friend soft eyes, and better than his I’ll Never Betray Your Trust dad clothes, and better than his strong-but-not-intimidating jawline, and better than those little quips he tosses out during conversation? It’s that halfway frustrated, halfway annoyed face he makes when he’s really selling a joke. It’s his defining move as an actor, really: the Jason Bateman Face (JBF), if you will. He does it in every movie he’s in, recalibrating it for whatever is needed. It’s so layered, so razor sharp.

And so let’s bring that GIF back again, because he’s making exactly that face here:

In this particular scene, the company that he works for is trying to negotiate a merger with another company. He’s just walked into the meeting late (it’s the Ryan Reynolds version of him, and so he’s kind of screwing everything up), and when he does, everyone starts firing questions at him about various technical parts of the merger.

“What about our WACC?” one guy asks. “Huh?” Bateman says back. “What PPS multiple are you using?” a different guy interjects. “What’s that?” Bateman responds back quickly, less so looking for an answer and more just hoping everyone will stop talking to him. “Is the financing still stable?” the first guy asks. Bateman, fed up, decides to end the conversation. “Hang on, guys,” he says. “There’s, like, fucking 25 guys on this side [of the table]. Can you fire at somebody else? Anybody else field a fucking question?” And that’s when he makes the face:

See it? See all of the parts and pieces of the JBF working together at once? You’ve got four main parts:

  • The eyes: It’s that slower-than-normal blink that does it. It’s like he’s washing away whatever it is that was just said to him or that just happened in front of him. There’s contempt in that slow blink, but really it’s more disregard, but really it’s more of an I Can’t Believe You’ve Just Made My Brain Absorb Your Words thing. (Let me take a quick second to mention that, in nearly all cases, the JBF, while rooted in frustration or annoyance, is rarely ever meant as an attack. Mostly it’s a reaction. The one exception is what he did with it in The Gift, a movie where he played a hateful and manipulative bully.) (He was a bully in his cameo in Central Intelligence, too, sure, but that was an instance of him being a comedy bully, which is to say it was the entire point.)
  • The eyebrows: He holds them higher up than usual when he’s making the face. It serves the dual purpose of making it clear that (a) he believes himself to be smarter than you, and (b) he cannot believe he even has to say anything that he’s just said or is about to say. You say something reasonable and then he makes that face and then it suddenly feels like you just asked him if he thought it’d be a good idea for you to let your dog drive your car home from PetSmart.
  • The mouth: He closes it shut with juuuuuuuuust enough force that it’s obvious he’s doing it on purpose, but not so much that it ever feels unnecessary or trite. The corners come curling up ever so slightly, almost like a tiny hat-tip to how The Grinch smiles, and it’s so great. I remember reading this long profile of Ludacris in an issue of XXL eight or nine years ago. It was written by Kris Ex, one my favorite writers. In it, he described Ludacris’s laugh as punctuation unto itself. That’s what that Edge of His Mouth curl is for Bateman; it’s like he’s ending a sentence by saying, “… So would you please keep up, yeah?”
  • The pause: Of the four pieces, this one is probably the most integral. All of the very good actors are able to take moments of stillness and load them full of meaning, be it fury or pain or uneasiness or humor or terror or, in Bateman’s case, frustration. It’s a delicate thing, really, because if you go even one ounce too far, then all of a sudden, everything feels very cartoonish and cartoon-y. Bateman, though, somehow never crosses that line, which is remarkable because he really and truly packs an almost unbelievable amount of frustration into those moments. It’s like watching someone stuff an elephant into a paper bag without ripping any of it.

Let’s finish with one more GIF:

This one is from Bad Words, a movie where Jason Bateman plays a jilted adult who hijacks a spelling bee competition as a way to [REDACTED BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO SPOIL IT FOR YOU IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN IT BECAUSE IT’S REALLY GOOD]. Of all of the movies that Jason Bateman has been in, this one features the most instances of him utilizing the JBF, which probably makes sense because he (a) very likely knows how powerful of a weapon it is, and (b) he directed the movie, and so of course he would make sure that it made the best use of his best attribute.

And of all of the times that the JBF appeared in Bad Words, this instance is (probably) my favorite. It’s not the joke that it punctuates (Bateman, after being needled by the kid, makes a joke that the kid’s chair is asking for help because the kid is big). It’s that, same as the earlier example, you can see all of the parts snapping into place as he makes the JBF, but he’s so on fire doing it in the movie that you don’t even have to actually see his entire face to know it’s happening. All you need is that tiny sliver of the edge of it from his profile view. It’s Jordan shooting the free throw with his eyes closed, or Babe Ruth calling his shot before hitting a home run. It’s real and total mastery.