"I have to warn you: I bet horses like a girl."

Jason Bateman isn't kidding. His eyes dart from the odds sheets splayed in front of him to the glazed-over fellow patrons of the Yankee Clipper, an OTB "teletheater" situated among the tall ships, cobblestones, and tourist shops of Manhattan's South Street Seaport. On this hazy Preakness Saturday in late May, the lounge's bus-station ambience is clearly distracting him from the business of choosing horses' names at random. As a clerk patiently explains a superfecta box and takes Bateman's needlessly elaborate wagers, the hushed skid-row types clutching crumpled racing forms and warm Coronas are harshing the actor's considerable, long-cultivated mellow.

"I think someone's gonna blow someone away in here," Bateman whispers. "Do we have to stay?"

We decamp to the Mexican restaurant around the corner, and Bateman, clad in a hoodie, T-shirt, jeans, and slip-ons, finally looks at ease. When my queso fundido arrives bubbling in a festive ceramic bowl perched above a tea light, he deadpans, "I'm sorry, are we celebrating something?"

"You know, it's funny," says the bartender, sliding Bateman a Diet Coke, "Ice the bounty hunter was in here just last week."

"The guy with the mullet," says Bateman with a signature eyebrow raise.

"No, Ice the bounty hunter? The guy Gob hires to follow you to Mexico in Season 2?"

"Oh, Ice the bounty hunter. I need to watch those fuckin' episodes again." This is at least the eighth time today a stranger has accosted the boyish-looking 40-year-old actor about Arrested Development usually to ask whether rumors of a movie spin-off are true. Had such attention been paid during the series' run on Fox, the show would not have ended as ignominiously as it did, in 2006. But however dramatically the comedy reversed Bateman's fortunes, his recall for its absurd arcana lags behind that of the typical fan.

"We're gonna make the movie," Bateman offers. "Mitch Hurwitz is just starting to write it. It'll be out in a year and a half."

And they're off. As the horses race out of the gate, a small crowd gathers around the flat-screen over the bar, and one minute and 55 seconds later, Rachel Alexandra, the lone filly in the field, crosses the finish line, first by a length. Bateman sifts through his tickets and flashes the wicked grin that graced a million junior-high lockers between 1982 and 1988.

Back at the Yankee Clipper OTB, Bateman sheepishly hands over his wad of receipts. "Could you maybe check all of these?" The cashier does, and hands over the winnings—$23—which Bateman quickly pockets, coolly pleased. There are no small victories.

•••

Jason Bateman has every reason to be feeling lucky. But to call his life charmed feels a bit too easy, and maybe even insulting. Because if going from child star to ex-child star to working actor to A-lister were simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, then surely someone would have done it before.

"He should be here, he's meant to be here, and for whatever reason, it's taken until now," says Jennifer Aniston of Bateman's unlikely ascent from eighties sitcom moppet to bona fide movie star. Aniston, who will share above-the-title billing with Bateman in The Baster (now called The Switch) next spring, met him 15 years ago on a group ski trip to Aspen—he and her best friend were on a show called Simon together, one of his half-dozen or so doomed series during the fallow nineties. "There's no bullshit with him," she says. "Even though he was pretty wild in those days, something about those dimples and that sweet face made you go, 'Oh, it's okay that you just drove up the street backwards in a Range Rover with the door wide open.' I don't know what was happening there. You feel instantly safe in his company."

Bateman got here—gracing 10 movies since 2006 and four more before year's end, each one meatier than the last—via the scenic route. After he landed his first regular role, on Little House on the Prairie in 1981, he worked furiously, spending the next decade on the sets of Silver Spoons, It's Your Move, Valerie/Valerie's Family/The Hogan Family/Whatever Else This Show Was Called During Its Six Years on the Air, and sundry TV movies in between, with his father, Kent, serving as mentor and manager. Then, the inevitable.