'The Family Fang'
After proving that he could direct a gentle R-rated comedy (‘Bad Words‘) as well as anyone who ever hired him to headline a similar project, Jason Bateman gets a bit more ambitious in his sophomore effort. ‘The Family Fang’ is a delightfully cracked dysfunctional family comedy that should please anyone who enjoys a little misery underlying their laughter.
Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman star as a pair of broken adults who have yet to get over their bizarre upbringing. Baxter (Bateman) is a struggling novelist who can barely scrape together rent. Annie (Kidman) is an actress reduced to appearing topless in a crappy B-movie for attention. As kids they were known as Child A and Child B in their performance artist parents’ social happenings, which turned staged events like fake bank robberies into video art. Obviously, that unconventional upbringing didn’t end well and the siblings have been estranged from their parents for years.
That all changes when a potato gun mishap lands Baxter in the hospital and he’s forced to return home to his parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) to heal. Baxter twists Annie’s arm until she agrees to join him at the old house in solidarity, and the family quickly reverts to the gently abusive relationships that caused a lifelong rift. Papa Caleb (Walken) even tries to talk his kids into new performance art shenanigans to save a career that’s been on the skids since he lost his pint-sized muses. Unsurprisingly, that dream doesn’t work out. Then one day, the parents go for a drive and their car is found covered in blood with the bodies missing. Is this a tragedy or a final family-breaking stunt? Baxter and Annie can’t be sure.
It’s definitely an oddball concept that could have easily played too big and broad to register emotionally, or could have been treated so seriously as to become a slog. Bateman wisely finds a tone right in the middle. He’s not above going for big laughs or even embracing slapstick (the potato gun accident certainly wouldn’t be out of place in one of his mainstream efforts), but he also takes the time to nurture the inner life of his characters and embrace their broken nature with empathy.
The performances are excellent. Bateman provides his usual sarcastic grounding force. Kidman serves up some sick laughs beneath pain. Maryann Plunkett tells more through sad eyes than anything she says, and Christopher Walken plays things surprisingly tic-free and offers a more human performance than his usual creepy enigmas. The 1970s flashbacks to the performance art pieces are shot through a hazy nostalgia, and for once actually feel like legitimately interesting works rather than forced parodies to suit the plot. Bateman takes his time to build a fully believable world before breaking it down, and that has a big impact on the stinging laughs and pained drama.
When the script (adapted by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire from a novel by Kevin Wilson) settles into whodunit territory, the results are genuinely surprising. Althoug the central mystery is pretty clear, the reasons behind the reveal are far more complicated than one might guess and add layers to characters who initially seemed like easy punchlines. Bateman’s film carries a bitter resonance and harsh message that packs a punch, but he never leans on weepy melodrama to force emotions. The movie might carry a high-concept premise populated by movie stars, but it heads toward something painfully true that serves the comedic concept rather than leaning into drama out of self-importance.
‘The Family Fang’ may not appeal to all audiences. It requires a certain cracked sensibility that the filmmakers and audience share, as well as cynicism toward the easy fantasy of conventional family values. For those just healthily damaged enough to appreciate what Bateman’s going for, the movie should stick with viewers for quite some time.
It’s surprising to think the star of ‘Teen Wolf Too’ is growing into a relevant filmmaker, but ‘The Family Fang’ proves that Jason Bateman not only has the chops to bring a production to completion; he also has some compelling things to say. Unfortunately, the actor/director admitted that he plans to chase a more mainstream project during interviews promoting the film at festivals last fall. While the guy is talented enough to make a hit, it would be a shame if he gives up the more challenging aspects of ‘The Family Fang’ in favor of easy entertainment. The guy has a knack for digging into darkness and finding something funny on the other side.