"It was like Risky Business for 10 years," he says of the nineties. "My parents were out of town, they left me a bunch of money, the car, and the house, and I didn't know when they were coming home. I'd worked so hard that by the time I was 20, I wanted to play hard. And I did that really well."

Bateman addresses all this with the sort of self-awareness that makes catting around Hollywood, aspiring to be a "25-year-old obnoxious drunk with a beak full of schnitz all night" sound like a stop on the road to enlightenment. "I had anxiety about making sure the rest of my life wasn't anticlimactic," he says. "Starting at age 10, my personality and my identity all stemmed from employment. I had a set to be at. I was a certain way with the cameraman, a certain way with the makeup lady—a normal, routine environment. When that went away and I didn't have that infrastructure, I had to start over."

Humbled rather than humiliated, he daydreamed about liquidating his bank accounts and flying off to whichever city caught his eye at LAX, opening a café and re-creating on his own terms the structure he got from his on-set family units. (He admits that in the past his relationships with his actual family were at times distant.) But just when he'd decide to chuck it all, he'd get a call about another pilot. By 2001, when Bateman married fellow showbiz-lifer Amanda Anka, whom he'd known since he was 18, he had sown every conceivable oat, without, miraculously, ever landing in the tabloids. ("That's 'cause he never dated me," Aniston says.) He rededicated himself to looking for work, often to no avail, but still indulged the occasional Risky Business misadventure, proud that the benders were now merely occasional.

Coming home late one night about a year after getting married, Bateman was greeted with an ultimatum: Anka, who'd lost previous boyfriends to overdoses, demanded he quit partying altogether; he preferred to taper off at his own pace. Things came to a head and she left for their planned holiday in Mexico without him. It was then, alone on a rainy Christmas morning, wondering if his marriage was over, that he bumped into an old friend who'd recently gotten sober and decided to tag along to an AA meeting.

"I was never at a place where rehab would have been appropriate," he says of his drug use. "Booze was what would make me want to stay out all night and do some blow or smoke a joint or whatever, so shutting that off was key. It's like ketchup and French friesI don't want one without the other. So that's the moment: Do you want to continue being great at being in your twenties, or do you want to step up and graduate into adulthood?"

These days, he spends his downtime pursuing his baseball addiction, obsessing over trades with the Keith Olbermann–like know-it-all in his fantasy league. Except that in his fantasy league the know-it-all is Keith Olbermann, a close friend who will instigate what currently amounts to a big night out for Bateman. "We go to Dodgers games and he spends the entire time keeping score, not saying a word," Bateman says. "It's perfect."

•••

This fall, for the first time since 1987's Teen Wolf Too, Bateman is being asked to carry not only a movie's every scene but also its box-office prospects. Before the year is out, he'll be seen in Couples Retreat, in which he and Vince Vaughn play equals for a change; The Invention of Lying, with Jonah Hill and Jennifer Garner; and Up in the Air, in which he stars opposite George Clooney. But first he's headlining Mike Judge's Extract. Where the everydudes of Judge's Office Space were stifled by their jobs, Bateman's Joel, the owner-operator of a small flavor-extract factory, loves his work—his frustrations are strictly sexual. Under the influence of whiskey, pills, and his sidekick, Ben Affleck, he hires a lunkheaded gigolo to seduce his wife, thus ostensibly allowing him to have a guilt-free affair. That Joel remains sympathetic is a testament to Bateman's signature tightrope walk: He's charismatic enough to command a 30-foot screen for 90-plus minutes yet wholly believable as a blue-collar schnook who can't even get laid by his own wife.

"There's a little bit of weakness to Jason that people can relate to," Judge says. "That's a pretty tough thing to pull off." By this point, Bateman has mastered the role of the audience stand-in, executing that perfect blank stare or withering bon mot we'd like to think we would deliver. Which isn't to say Bateman can't play to laughs—he's preternaturally droll and well-versed in pop-cultural shorthand, answering a question about his childhood, "I was born a poor black child." Think of him standing toe-to-toe with scenery chewers like Will Arnett and David Cross in Arrested Development, or Will Smith in Hancock, or Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn in Starsky & Hutch and Dodgeball, or being the only person in Juno you didn't want to punch in the neck. Then think Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray: He's not the guy who creates the absurd situation; he's the guy who reacts to it.