When you see actor Jason Bateman on screen, he's usually playing the nice guy — or at least the nicest guy in the room. On the TV cult favorite Arrested Development, Bateman is easily the heart of the show.
But given the chance to direct a movie, he cast himself as a vulgar sociopath with a gift for coming up with the perfect put-down. The film is Bad Words, and it tells the story of a 40-year-old elbowing his way onto the middle-school spelling-bee circuit, to the frustration of kids, parents and teachers alike.
Bateman spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about playing an unlikable character, his experiences as a child actor, and why his script was, for a while, on the so-called Black List — a survey of Hollywood movie executives who name the best scripts they've read that haven't been produced.
On Bad Words and the Black List
The scripts that are on that list are great scripts, but there's something about them that keeps them from getting produced. And in this case, I think, it was because it seemed very challenging to the reader to have anybody like this guy, this central character that I ended up playing. He is a guy who's had his feelings hurt. He elects to try and fix his problem by crashing a kids' spelling bee; that has some relevance in his revenge scenario. So there is a deeper agenda, a more sophisticated agenda at play. His execution of that, though, is pretty sophomoric, and so it makes it challenging to make him likable, because he misbehaves quite a bit, especially to young kids.
On why he wanted his character, Guy Trilby, to be as unlikable as possible
I stole that. ... That was the formula on Arrested Development. That was what the show's creator said to all of us in the cast. And that's a stimulating challenge, to say nasty things but somehow behave in such a way, or capture a certain look in camera that shows some vulnerability in the character, or some ignorance, as opposed to hatred.
One of my favorite shows growing up was All In the Family, and Carroll O'Connor played Archie Bunker in such a way that — you know, he said all these politically incorrect things, but he always seemed to earn it somehow, with some sort of endearing look of ignorance or stupidity or whatever it was. He got away with it. So I wanted to take on that challenge, and just as a director, build an atmosphere, an environment, a tone around this character and the other characters, where these type of flawed people would naturally exist.
On what he learned from being a child actor
I was glad that I had that memory to draw upon, because the set can be a fairly intimidating place, or it can be a really boring place. It's a lot. So I would kind of switch off between being [co-star Rohan Chand's] friend and being his director and being his co-actor. ... I had to kind of keep pivoting, to try to keep the experience positive for him, because things can go sideways with a 10-year-old pretty quickly.
On what he hoped to accomplish with his character
I didn't have a certain set of written rules about what this guy had been through, and his back story. I was just nimble about when and where he would be mature or immature, and so oftentimes it was an arbitrary decision about whether I was going to seem smart or seem dumb, or seem scared or seem vulnerable. That's the fun of acting for me, as opposed to deciding exactly how you're going to play each scene the night before, practicing your faces in the mirror, learning your lines.
On learning about film from his father
He was a writer, director, producer, freelance, his whole life. And so, as I was a little boy, or old enough to kind of understand what movies were about, he would take me, as opposed to the park to throw the ball and stuff. And I got a very early interest in what this stuff is, and when I got a chance to become a part of it, I jumped into it full force.
On why Bateman wouldn't let his kids act
I wouldn't only because it is a profession that you can't really help yourself in. In most professions, if you stay at the office an extra four hours every day, you're gonna impress the boss, you're gonna get that promotion, you're gonna get that raise, you're gonna at least have job security. But with acting, if you're really ambitious and you have a good work ethic, and are really good at your job, it might not really matter.
[CAUTION: Contains information about both show and movie. Be warned.]
The story of the Veronica Mars movie has already become the insta-cook version of a legend: creator and star band together for Kickstarter campaign to add chapter to cult series, fans rally, movie gets made.
Does it really matter whether it's a good movie? Maybe not. Maybe wondering whether it's good is the equivalent of critiquing a bobblehead handed out at Comic-Con: it's supposed to make people who loved something nostalgically happy; if it makes them happy, who cares?
That's a largely fine way to evaluate this particular project: as a novelty. It's not very substantive, but for people who have missed the snappy dialogue and the colorful folks of Neptune, it's fun. Veronica's dialogue is as caustic as ever, and it has a class-reunion feel to its class-reunion plot that's sort of true to real life: it's neat just to see what everybody has been up to. (Speaking for myself, I enjoyed it a lot while I watched it, as long as I didn't think about it very hard.)
But perhaps because this was created for fans — the most literal fan service ever — the story unfortunately gets the entirety of its emotional pull from the relationship between Veronica and Logan Echolls, the guy she initially knew as a violent, jealous, arrogant bully and later learned was — wait for it — just a wounded soul who could be healed by love.
This is true to a longstanding myth you might call the Bad Caterpillar Theory. The Bad Caterpillar Theory holds that when you see a young man (and sometimes, less often, a young woman) who is mean, jealous, possessive, violent, angry, emotionally unavailable, or constantly in trouble, you should think of that person as a Bad Caterpillar. And you should remember, always, that inside the Bad Caterpillar is a beautiful Extra-Special Butterfly who will emerge later. Meanwhile, inside every Good Caterpillar is a boring Drone Butterfly who just isn't exciting.
The Veronica Mars mythology has set up Logan as the Bad Caterpillar and Piz as the Good Caterpillar, and it has rattled off every cliche that stories like this always contain:
1. Her father doesn't approve of Bad Caterpillar.
2. Her friends don't understand Bad Caterpillar and keep telling her he's no good for her.
3. Bad Caterpillar is frequently in trouble and needs her to save him, which she does with her loyalty and willingness to sacrifice. She also sometimes needs him to save her, which he does by hitting people and doing things that are illegal.
4. Bad Caterpillar's most unpleasant behavior, he only engaged in because he loved someone so much.
By the time the movie starts, Logan has emerged as the Butterfly to a degree that's almost comical. He no longer has any flaws whatsoever; he shows up in Navy whites that weirdly look like they're too big for him, but the message is clear: he's all grown up. There's effectively no edge left to the character at all, and although the movie co-opts the language of addiction and recovery to have Veronica talk about the relationship as an addiction, there's no indication that any of it is actually bad for her or that she's even legitimately conflicted about it. He's transparently innocent of the crime she's trying to get him off the hook for, he's in the Navy ... he's basically been transformed into a cartoon prince.
At last, her patience, her faith, her unwillingness to give up has paid off. The Butterfly has arrived.
So of course she has to dump her nice, generous, supportive, unexciting boyfriend. Of course she does.
The first problem —the actual "this is not a good thing" problem — with the Bad Caterpillar theory is that while some of them turn into butterflies, a lot of them do not. There are people who make themselves pretty unhappy waiting for this to happen.
But the bigger problem for the movie is that for a show that created such an interesting and distinctive central character and gave her so many friendships and relationships that had weight — with her dad, in particular — this just an incredibly boring way to go with this story. There aren't any real stakes in the story other than the love triangle, unless you count a plot about her father wanting her to go have a conventionally successful career instead of following her dreams, which also could have come from any movie and any story with any cool daughter and loving father.
In other words, they took all these interesting people and this interesting town and re-told every "underneath it all, he just needs love and he'll emerge as a smoothed-out hero" romance. It's not that this is terrible, it's just that it's ... a total cliche, which is the opposite of everything Veronica Mars originally was.
Part of the problem here may simply be taking a show that began as the TV version of the really good YA literature we have now — made about and accessible for teenagers but plenty good enough for adults — and translating it into a movie about people in their late twenties. For Veronica to be enraptured in a relationship she sees as an addiction as a teenager is one thing; for her to be unable to get away from a relationship she sees as an addiction when she's 28 years old is just ... kind of sad. And not actually very romantic at all. What would you tell your best friend if she told you that she saw her romantic life as the equivalent of an addiction?
I mean, if Angela Chase were still mooning over Jordan Catalano when she was a couple of years out of grad school, I don't think that would be romantic either.
The Bad Caterpillar theory is largely just a bump for most teenagers; they get burned by "people don't change" a time or two, and hopefully as they get older, they get smarter. To trap Veronica — who is a feminist landmark figure for a not-insignificant number of women — in this story is a little ... depressing. She apparently went to law school, but that's over. She apparently built a relationship, but that's over, too. All she really wanted was to go back to high school, work in her dad's office, and be with the guy she once called a "psychopathic jackass" because at last, all her dreams came true and he's literally perfect?
This is where that business model, that landmark Age Of Enthusiasm crowdfunding that is so promising in so many ways, may have a downside. The movie feels more commemorative than creative; more of a gift to put on a shelf than an expansion or even an extension of the story.
There's nothing wrong with fans commissioning something commemorative, but that won't ever serve the same function as a funding mechanism that works for new voices and new visions. It works, so far, to give people more of what they already want, which isn't necessarily bad. But it's very different from addressing the bigger problem with the way culture is paid for, which is not introducing people to the things they don't even know they are about yet.
Everybody knows smoking is hazardous. Being around someone who smokes isn't such a good idea either. "There's no safe amount of secondhand smoke," the surgeon general has said.
Now thirdhand smoke is getting scrutiny. What's thirdhand smoke? It's the residue from smoke that settle onto clothes, hair, furniture or anything else in a smoker's vicinity.
These chemicals can react with others in the air or on surfaces to create even more potentially hazardous substances. "Thirdhand smoke can grow more toxic over time," says Bo Hang, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
He briefed the media Monday on findings from his lab's work on thirdhand smoke presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Dallas.
The concept of thirdhand smoke is fairly new, and remains controversial.
Hang's lab has looked at tobacco-specific chemicals that alter DNA, including one called NNA that is very similar to a well-known and potent carcinogen called NNK.
Is thirdhand smoke dangerous in the real world? Just because something can be detected doesn't prove that it's a health hazard. "We cannot ignore these compounds even though they are in small quantities in thirdhand smoke," Hang says.
Still, the press materials released before his talk concede there's a lot of work to do before cause and effect can be shown. "Just as it took years to establish the cancer-causing effects of first-hand smoke that is inhaled as a person breathes in directly from the cigarette, making the connection between third-hand smoke or NNA and cancer could take a long time," said a statement attributed to Hang.
In his remarks to journalists Monday, Hang said many clinical studies would have to be performed to characterize the health risks.
Among other things, Hang and his group are looking for chemical markers that would help them identify DNA damage specific to thirdhand smoke exposure.
Previously, Hang's group published a paper in the journal Mutagenesis that said they had demonstrated the toxic potential of thirdhand smoke for human cells. "This is the very first study to find that thirdhand smoke is mutagenic," Lara Gundel, a colleague of Hang's and a co-author of the study, said in a statement last June. "Tobacco-specific nitrosamines, some of the chemical compounds in thirdhand smoke, are among the most potent carcinogens there are."
A January paper in PLOS ONE that looked at using mice in to assess the health hazards highlighted the knowledge gap:
Although the potential risks attributed to [thirdhand smoke] exposure are increasing, virtually nothing is known about the specific health implications of acute or cumulative exposure. Therefore, there is a critical need for animal experiments to evaluate biological effects of [thirdhand smoke] exposure that will inform subsequent human epidemiological and clinical trials.
The experiments described in the PLOS ONE paper showed that mice exposed to smoke residue, but never actual smoke, had tissue damage and other changes in health a lot like those seen with secondhand smoke.
March giveth and it taketh away, depending on which coast you call home. Here in California, it's sunny, yes — but we're also suffering a drought. Meanwhile, portions of the East Coast are anything but precipitation-deprived as they suffer under several inches of snow.
But whether you're stuck at home unable to get to work or school, or watching your lawn slowly turn brown as you conserve water, it's a good time to enjoy a movie. Get a taste of what isn't happening outside your window with these films about droughts or blizzards:
The Gold Rush: Charlie Chaplin makes his way to the Klondike to find gold in this comedy classic, only to find himself stuck in a flimsy shack that gets buffeted about by the winter winds. Eventually, he's forced to make a gourmet meal out of his snow boots — while fellow prospector Mack Swain starts thinking of Charlie as a potential entrée.
The Rainmaker: The parched earth of the Midwest metaphorically stands in for spinster Katharine Hepburn's repressed love life, particularly when Burt Lancaster breezes into town with the promise of giving new life to both with his amorous and meteorological prowess. Makes a perfect double feature with The Long, Hot Summer, another sexy, sweaty '50s movie of the "stranger comes to town" genre.
Misery: A snowstorm traps novelist James Caan in a cabin with his "number one fan" Kathy Bates, who's all too happy to help him mend from a car accident — until she decides to torture him into rewriting his latest book especially for her. Between the frightful weather outside and the horrible treatment and bondage he suffers, Caan can't get away from this unhinged admirer. Some people just shouldn't be roommates.
Jean de Florette: In this grandly epic tragedy, a long, hot summer and the water-stealing machinations of his duplicitous neighbors (Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil) make life difficult for newbie gentleman farmer Gerard Depardieu. If you're snowbound and you've got the time, go ahead and make this a double feature with its powerful follow-up, Manon of the Spring, in which farmer's daughter Emmanuelle Béart gets her revenge.
Snow Day: From the makers of the cult TV show The Adventures of Pete & Pete comes this celebration of one of the great joys of childhood: the chance to miss school for a day of sledding. This one's got it all: dueling weathermen, tween love triangles and a mean snow-plow driver (Chris Elliott) who's bound and determined to clear the streets and reopen the schools. (Boo!)
Rango: If you thought the water-hoarders in Chinatown were ruthless, wait until you meet the Gila monster who's keeping a whole town thirsty — until a domesticated chameleon (with the voice of Johnny Depp) sweeps in to save the day. Probably the most entertaining collaboration between Depp and Gore Verbinski (who directed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies), this is a dusty Western parody best enjoyed with a very large beverage handy.
Die Hard 2: Terrorists, snowstorms and Christmas Eve: It's your basic Airport Nightmare Trifecta as John McClane (Bruce Willis) must battle druglords, holiday crowds and wintry conditions to save several planeloads of innocent passengers — including his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and obnoxious newsman Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) — from crashing into the Dulles International runways.
Leap of Faith: A small town in Kansas hopes for rain, but instead they get something else entirely: Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin), a flashy huckster who rakes it in with his traveling revivals. No one is more flummoxed than Jonas when miracles really start happening. This cult comedy was recently turned into a short-lived Broadway musical.
Eight Below: Loosely based on a true story, this adventure stars the late Paul Walker as a guide who returns to Antarctica to mount an expedition to rescue the sled dogs who saved his life during a brutal snowstorm. Parental warning: In this movie, some dogs go to heaven.
The Shining: If you think you've got it bad after spending a few housebound days with your kids singing "Let It Go" over and over again, you'll feel better knowing that you haven't gone as far around the bend as Jack Nicholson's cabin-feverish hotel-sitter, driven slowly mad by the resort's ghosts and by his own inner demons. Now go have some more cocoa.
We're already giving voice instructions to virtual personal assistants, like Apple's Siri. But artificial intelligence is getting even smarter. The next wave of behavior-changing computing is a technology called anticipatory computing — systems that learn to predict what you need, even before you ask.
Google Now, which is available on tablets and mobile devices, is an early form of this. You can ask it a question like, "Where is the White House?" and get a spoken-word answer. Then, Google Now recognizes any follow-up questions, like "How far is it from here?" as a human would — the system realizes you're still asking about the White House, even without you mentioning the search term again. It's an example of how anticipatory computing is moving the way we interact with devices from tapping or typing to predictive voice control.
"That's what is the next wave of computing, in my opinion," says venture capitalist Om Malik, who founded the technology news site, Gigaom.
Malik says smart virtual assistants using this technology are necessary to clear the digital clutter in our lives. The more we add apps and digital functions we need to perform on our devices, the more individually tapping or typing for each function becomes a hassle.
"As we become more digital, as we use more things in the digital realm, we just need time to manage all that. And it is not feasible with the current manual processes. So the machines will learn our behavior, how we do certain things, and start anticipating our needs," Malik says.
For example, if you're traveling, anticipatory devices fetch flight-delay or gate information automatically. Or they mesh the data in your calendar with maps to guide you from one appointment to the next.
During the NPR interview with Malik, we used an experimental app to help supply background information, photos and video on my tablet. The app — called MindMeld — listened in on our conversation and pulled up relevant information on my screen. For example, when I said Om Malik's name, his biographical information like a Wikipedia entry, news coverage of Malik and more showed up for me instantly. It's like Siri on steroids, capable of listening in on a conversation with as many as eight people at once.
"[Anticipatory computing] is gonna get good enough in certain areas that we're gonna wonder how we ever lived without it," says Tim Tuttle. His Expect Labs created the MindMeld technology.
"We now have all these devices with all these great sensors that can hear us, that can see us, that can know about places that we've been, places we're going, and those signals become the inputs that allow these intelligent assistants to find what we need without requiring us to type searches necessarily," Tuttle says.
Everything you say becomes a piece of data that anticipatory apps use to better understand you.
"The more they know about what you like, what you don't like, where you go, what you're talking, what you're reading, the better they can recommend something for you," Tuttle says.
It can seem kind of creepy — all our data going to these companies that control the technology. Malik says he's OK with trading in his data for the convenience promised by these computers. (He wrote about this trade-off in a piece for Fast Company.)
"Twenty years ago we were all squeamish about instant messaging. Then we got squeamish about Facebook," Malik says. "There is something inevitable about technology. It is scary, but at the same time, it is inevitable."
Tuttle says the change to these magic computers won't come that fast.
"There's still this mismatch of expectations that people have. They expect the Star Trek computer on day one," he says. We may not be quite there yet, but the era of magical computing is beginning.