Family dysfunction takes on new meaning in “The Family Fang,” a film about a pair of performance artists for whom everything in life is part of the act, and the effects this existence has on their two children.
The elegantly structured adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s best-selling novel opens in a scene from the past. In the family car, parents Caleb (Jason Butler Harner) and Camille (Kathryn Hahn) are preparing their adolescent children Annie (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) and Baxter (Jack McCarthy) for something. Caleb is dressed as a police officer and Baxter, at probably five, is asking if he can taste the fake blood again.
Suddenly we’re in a bank, where Baxter is staging a hold up for the teller’s lollipop jar with a gun. There’s a shooting, there are tears, and then there’s laughter as the family breaks the ruse. Surrounding pedestrians look on in horror at the bizarre, terrifying scene. The Fangs are just in their own world enjoying themselves and relishing in the chaos that they’ve created.
As is to be expected, the future is not as carefree. Now grown, Annie (Nicole Kidman) is a famous actress with a wild reputation who has gotten less interesting with sobriety. The once indie darling is now best known for a string of lousy rom coms and is trying to stage a comeback. Baxter (Jason Bateman, who also directed), is a novelist who had one great breakout, a middling follow-up and is now two years late on his next.
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An accident and a hospital stint brings the siblings back together again, and back with their parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett), who they escaped long ago. The accidental reunion is at turns fraught and comforting, but things turn sour and volatile when the adult kids refuse to participate in another stunt with their too-eager parents.
The stunt goes bad, Caleb freaks out and soon after, Caleb and Camille go missing. A distressing meeting with the police forces the kids to sincerely wonder whether their parents’ disappearance is serious or just another stunt.
While Baxter resigns himself to the idea that perhaps his parents are actually dead, Annie becomes obsessed with the idea that they’re not and the two damaged kids mine past traumas and present complications to try to figure out the truth.
The film is brimming with big ideas about art, expression, authenticity and family, which Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire weaves seamlessly into a briskly paced plot, where even flashbacks feel not like diversions, but perfect reveals.
Bateman, back in the director’s seat after his 2013 feature debut “Bad Words,” may not be an especially cinematic director yet, but he sure knows how to capture performances, even if he’s just letting his actors do their own thing. Walken is a standout as the art obsessed patriarch, mercilessly indifferent to his family but still somewhat empathetic in his lofty artistic endeavors. Bateman, too, is in top form in a rare, emotionally resonant performance.
The one real false note is Kidman, also a producer. Her Annie is terrific on her own – especially in some early scenes on the set of a film and then in conversation with a journalist – but seems woefully out of place with the Fangs, and not just because Kidman struggles to conceal her Aussie accent. She and Bateman are fine together, but her detachment detracts from the emotional core of this relationship.
For a story bursting with ideas about radical art, the film is ultimately rather conventional. But that’s just as well. Smart modern literary adaptations can too often get bogged down in whimsy. “The Family Fang” plays it straight, knowing that the story is peculiar enough on its own.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Jason Butler Harner, Kathryn Hahn
Director: Jason Bateman
Length: 107 minutes
Rating: R (language)
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