Director: Jason Bateman
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Marin Ireland
Runtime: 1 hr 45 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Opening Day: 12 May 2016
Synopsis: After an unlikely accident, a pair of grown siblings (producer/star Nicole Kidman and director/star Jason Bateman) are compelled to move back in with their eccentric parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett), professional performance artists whose lifetime of public interventions have alienated their children.
Hollywood loves dysfunction, especially if it is laced with comedy. Yet too many of these so-called ‘dramedies’ do not know the difference between dramatic artifice and genuine pathos, coming off affected and pretentious as a result. Fortunately, Jason Bateman’s sophomore directorial effort isn’t one of them. Working off a screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire based on the popular 2011 novel of the same name by Kevin Wilson, his alternately amusing and sobering story about the struggles for children to overcome the traumas unconsciously inflicted by their parents is an unexpectedly sharp and affecting dysfunctional family portrait, and one of the very best we’ve seen recently.
A prologue that has young Baxter pretending to rob a bank for lollipops and his sister Annie getting ‘hurt’ in the process demonstrates the absurdity of their parents’ Caleb and Camille Fang’s public pranks, which they proudly proclaim as art. Indeed, for the parents Fang, who refer to their kids as Child A and Child B, their form of live, improvised and in-the-moment art designed to shock or jolt people out of their routines comes before everything, including we learn later the wellbeing of their own children. How both these siblings eventually come to be estranged from their parents isn’t quite explained, but despite keeping their physical distance from Caleb and Camille, there is no doubt that Annie and Baxter are still trying to escape the long shadow of their parents and their shared past.
Bateman himself plays Baxter, a novelist with one good book to his name, one middling follow-up and a third which he has been trying to write for the past two years. On assignment to write about war veterans in upstate New York shooting supercharged potato guns for recreational therapy, Baxter gets hit in the head and ends up with a perforated eardrum. Not knowing who else to call, the hospital gets in touch with his parents to take care of him. In turn, Baxter calls Annie (played by Nicole Kidman), now an actress whose career appears to be on a downward spiral of late, who returns to the family home to support her brother and find her own closure for a childhood which she blames for her subsequent drinking and impulsive behaviour.
Turns out the years since have not changed Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) much – shortly after they arrive home, Caleb enlists Annie and Baxter in his latest prank of giving out fake coupons for free sandwiches at a chicken joint. But Annie and Baxter’s refusal to participate triggers what will eventually be a life-changing reckoning, as Annie and Baxter are notified by the local sheriff that their Dad and Mom have gone missing after deciding to go away for the weekend. Have their parents been abducted like the sheriff fears, and if so, are they like the other victims of a recent string of abductions, dead? Or is this yet another of their elaborate hoaxes? That’s the mystery the film teases to the end, whose revelation will be nothing less than an emotional sledgehammer.
In between the siblings’ own investigation into their parents’ disappearance, Bateman inserts old video recordings of these performance-art pieces, including a crucial one involving a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ production where Dad and Mom engineer the disappearance of the teenage actor playing Romeo in order that Baxter may step into his role and kiss his sister who plays Juliet on stage in front of all the other parents. Whether physically or viscerally through these clips, Bateman navigates the emotional undercurrents of his characters beautifully, never once letting the proceedings tip into caricature and raising thought-provoking questions along the way about how much our identity both good and bad are shaped by our parents.
As Baxter, Bateman sets the tone with a subdued performance that lets other actors bounce against. In particular, Bateman and Kidman share a lovely unaffected rapport as brother and sister that makes for one of the more convincing on-screen sibling relationships we’ve seen in a while. Annie is also one of Kidman’s most substantial portrayals of late, the actress digging deep to express her character’s deep internal conflicts which she coats with a flinty veneer. Likewise, Walken gets one of his meatiest supporting roles in some time as the eccentric, overbearing patriarch of the Fangs. Too often typecast in villainous roles due to his trademark speech pattern and drill-like stare, Walken effectively channels both to deliver a haunting performance as a self-obsessed artist who demonstrates no compunction in front of his kids even as he acknowledges that he had damaged them.
Thanks to the fine performances all round, ‘The Family Fang’ is surely one of the most poignant family dramas of late. Not many directors can balance broad comedy with real emotion, but Bateman does both wonderfully while maintaining an acute observation of the character and family dynamics that result from the dysfunction at the heart of the Fangs. While it does raise some intriguing questions about art, the more likely question it leaves you with is the impact that our parents’ actions have had on the way we turned out different, and for those who are parents, the conscious and unconscious impact of our actions on our children. Let’s just say that in addition to being entertaining, this dramedy truly has bite.
(One of the best dysfunctional family portraits we’ve seen of late, ‘The Family Fang’ balances broad comedy with real emotion and comes out unexpectedly sharp and affecting)
Review by Gabriel Chong