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Netflix's "Ozark" is a Mindless Puzzle

Jason Bateman plays a business savvy patriarch who gets caught up in some shady dealings in “Ozark,” a new ten-episode series streaming on Netflix today. He tries to run his family like a small business after making a huge mistake, and it’s often up to his smarts to get everyone out. If this sounds like the series “Arrested Development,” which also happens to star Bateman, you’re not far off, as “Ozark” has the strange air of what would happen if “Breaking Bad” met that famous show. 

But before it gets to its dead-serious financial shenanigans, “Ozark” plays out like a riff on “American Beauty” in the pilot episode directed by two-time filmmaker Bateman. He plays a financial advisor named Marty Byrde whose disenfranchisement with suburban life extends beyond consuming himself with work, or glumly watching a video of his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) cheating on him with another man. By the end of the episode, Marty has gone from bland suit to accounting antihero when a ripped-off cartel boss that he also works for (Esai Morales) enlists him to launder and make money for him in a certain time frame, or else (in an episode that continually surprises with its brutality, Marty’s business partner is not so lucky). Marty frantically packs up his family, including middle-school age Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), 15-year-old daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and his wife, and they head to the Missouri Ozarks, where money can be made from the small businesses that see exponential tourist business in the summer season. 

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By episode two, “Ozark” settles in its title location, and starts to take its natural rhythm, as a collection of scenes in which characters negotiate with each other, with Bateman’s Marty very often having the upper-hand given his knowledge. He tries to find businesses he can invest in like a strip club called the Lickety Splitz or a struggling dockside bar. People in the town quickly begin to notice and take advantage of him, like the crooked Langmore family, who are often led by the word of 19-year-old Ruth (Julia Garner of “Grandma”). Stealing opportunity is the operative mindset in a story like this, with everyone trying to take advantage of the other, in order to obtain what Marty says in the pilot to be a measure of a man’s choices—money. Meanwhile, an FBI agent named Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) ventures down to the Ozarks to follow Marty and his family undercover, while connecting with one of the Langmore brothers in a way that seems more personal than just part of the job. The series does hit it stride, finally, in episode five, in which Marty is caught up with the legitimately intimidating family who have the largest, and most criminal, business in the Ozarks. 

A lot of this would play more thrillingly if the characters didn’t seem as wooden; if the series felt like it was written to serve more than just a need to present power plays. Characters of various degrees of evil, along with various degrees of business savvy, clash in endless scenes of trying to get the upper-hand. Their lacking construction doesn’t sustain the tension needed, even with the cartel putting Marty on a ticking time clock, or numerous scenes in which Marty has to think on his feet to secure thousands of dollars from archetypal blue collar folk. Along with its penchant for malevolent characters to go on rambling monologues in order to convey some type of way they do business, “Ozark” is like a turgid fantasy on the art of making deals. 

Other character threads fill in the running time of each 55-minute episode, but given the script’s established limits, are by no means revelatory. It affects performances in most cases, as with Linney’s underutilized Wendy character, who slowly comes to terms with the life-or-death uprooting that her family has experienced and has her own way of manipulating people. But she's subjected to hammy sequences like in a grocery store, where she freaks about mint ice cream. Children Charlotte and Jonah have their own mini-stories, like Charlotte’s first-person interaction with the boys from both the area and not or Jonah’s fascination with the cartel coming to kill his family, and soon taking up the business mentalities of his father. Charlotte gets the worst of any major character, lazily written as a teenager (“Their Snapchats are like FOMO 24/7,” she says about her friends back home) but the indifferent handling just proves part of the show’s creative atmosphere. 

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From the very first episode, “Ozark” is dressed up like a David Fincher movie, using the green and gray tints that the director adores, along with a score that clicks and beeps just like the work that Atticus Ross & Trent Reznor have previously done for the influential filmmaker. Bunched with the sullen tone in its storytelling, which seeks to take viewers deeper into the criminal activity of the Ozarks and into the life of Marty before the cartel comes calling, you can see the dramatic aspirations for this series. But if you look past that veneer, “Ozark” is far less rich in just about everything except flashy business ideas, its story only able to offer binge-viewers some mindless puzzles. 

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