‘Ozark’: Jason Bateman Is Breaking Bad

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in ‘Ozark’ (Photo: Netflix)

In the new Netflix drama Ozark, Jason Bateman plays a Chicago financial advisor who gets involved with money laundering for a brutal drug cartel boss, played by Esai Morales. To appease that boss, Bateman’s Marty Byrde proposes a screwy idea: He and his family (headed up by Laura Linney as his wife) will move to the Missouri Ozarks and set up a new laundering operation far from the eyes of the law. This notion, rather absurd on the face of it, seems to strike Morales’s character as so novel, he gives his consent, and we’re off and running. It’s family-man, wife, and two resentful children initially staying one step ahead of law enforcers and evil-doers but soon settling into their life of deceit and crime. With its dark visual palette and strained family ties, Ozark is a bit like another Netflix show —you could think of it as Bloodline Lite. But Ozark is even more like Breaking Bad, especially when you add in the fact that, like Bad, it stars an actor best known for his comic roles suddenly going bleak, desperate, and poker-faced.

Ozark, created by Bill Dubuque, who wrote last year’s Ben Affleck movie The Accountant, tries mightily to escape comparison to other TV shows. Ironically, Ozark gets most of its originality from Bateman, its most TV-related star. The face familiar from everything ranging from Arrested Development all the way back to The Hogan Family, Bateman is very fine indeed as Marty, a grim hustler who’s awfully good at convincing people to do things they don’t want to do. Marty’s gift for persuasion is put to near-constant use. He holds his family together despite the fact that Wendy (Linney) is unfaithful to him, and his teenage daughter (Sophia Hublitz) is an incessantly complaining brat. He talks his way into using a local inn and a strip club as fronts for money-laundering. He maneuvers around a vicious backwoods family operating its own drug trade. (That clan is headed up by Peter Mullen, who’s been similarly menacing in Top of the Lake and Quarry.)

Ozark is frequently so despairing, so grave, it verges on self-parody, and as often as not, it’s Bateman who keeps the thing watchable. He delivers some of his lines with a deadpan-comedy spin that provides an occasional, much-needed chuckle, and he has directed some of the better installments in this 10-episode series. Much of Ozark is built on one improbable idea or coincidence after another. Drug-money-laundering Marty just happens to relocate to a little hamlet overrun by money-making drug-runners? Marty decides to use a church as a front for his Ozark money-laundering scheme — not knowing it’s the same church used by the Ozark drug-runners to peddle their supplies? Come on.

Ozark has a big cast — I haven’t even mentioned the two FBI guys tailing Marty, or the hillbilly gal (The Americans‘s Julia Garner) who runs the strip club, or Harris Yulin (Scarface) in an excellent turn as the dying man with whom Marty and Wendy and the kids share an Ozark house. The show has an occasionally suspenseful twist. (Electrocution in the water: Watch out!) But as it proceeds, Ozark takes way too long to make a few good points and to showcase a few good performances, most prominently Jason Bateman’s.

Ozark is streaming now on Netflix.

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