The Family Fang
Since it’s a family drama that seems to exist solely to prove that we haven’t seen every kind of dysfunctional family portrayed on the silver screen and that juicy parts do, in fact, still exist for actors of a certain age, it isn’t all too much of a surprise that Jason Bateman’s The Family Fang (2016) begins as a movie with subversion on the brain and ends as a forgettable if interesting sidestepping of the tropes perfected by Running on Empty (1988).
It stars Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman as Annie and Baxter Fang, the children of performance artists (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) who’ve more or less seen their adult lives set off course by their unconventional upbringing. During their elementary years, the twosome endlessly participated in grand, public performances – through which they were essentially turned into stunt actors of sorts – that made everyday people into accidental audience members by making seemingly mundane situations into “scenes.”
Many of those said scenes are recreated through flashback, but more important than the giddy sidesteps into the past is the way Annie and Baxter have been affected by their childhood in adulthood. Annie has become a successful actress – notable enough for passersby to interrupt a meal for an autograph – and Baxter has become a relatively prosperous writer. But in their years since acting as the Fang family’s “A” and “B” have they struggled to keep their respective sanities. As a result of being raised by people more concerned with using them to make social statements than actually providing them with the support children typically need from their parents, reaching self-actualization has always been something of an impossibility. And now that Annie and Baxter are both nearing 50, swimming senses of self are now proving to be more destructive than ever.
Annie, long past her ingenue days, has become infamous for alcoholic bursts and emotional meltdowns on set, and has found her filmography suddenly characterized not by respectable work but by, as her dad expresses, a “bunch of crap movies and a tampon commercial.” Baxter has been afflicted with writer’s block for years, and recovery doesn’t seem to be looming. All, including patriarch Caleb and matriarch Camille, have tried to stay out of each other’s way. But after a freak accident draws attention to one of the Fangs, reunion comes swiftly – and comes to bring on the unveiling of Mom and Pop Fang’s latest outrageous performative experiment.
With so many wacky plot points sifting into David Lindsay-Abaire’s chronically commercially indignative screenplay, we’d expect a couple ideas to stick and stay stuck. But once the finale arrives do we come to the conclusion that, like the central, eccentric characters, The Family Fang doesn’t necessarily know who or what it wants to be, even if its schematic innovation does sometimes make it appear adroit.
And it is mostly adroit: its performers, particularly the punchy Kidman, are superb, and Bateman (who made his directorial debut in 2014 with the well-received Bad Words) directs with a soundness that suggests that even better works are residing in his future. But because it’s indecisive in regards to its wanting to be a visceral character study, a misty mystery, or a black comedy, we cannot easily grab onto what kind of film we’re watching – nothing much mixes, and the fusion falls through our fingertips by the time the credits roll. If it were more focused, combining genres would be a given, an effortless feat. But The Family Fang is careful and oftentimes slow, and that makes its inefficiencies in tonal stability vibrate.
Its blemishes considered, the film’s still entirely watchable, even involving once in a while when dramatic outlandishness is overtaken by authentic emotion. But The Family Fang isn’t sturdy enough to carry its lofty ambitions, and so we’re left with a well-acted, well-directed familial piece that might’ve benefited from a script unafraid of expanding upon its otherwise thought-provoking ideas. C+