The Family Fang (2015) / Comedy-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running Time: 105 min.

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Jason Butler Harner, Kathryn Hahn, Marin Ireland, Linda Emond
Director: Jason Bateman
Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire (based on the novel by Kevin Wilson)
Review published May 14, 2016

The Family Fang marks the second feature directorial effort for co-star Jason Bateman, coming after his modestly entertaining Bad Words, taking a decidedly more subdued turn away from vulgarity and smarm toward a quirky indie sensibility that seems about right for the material.  Although the family known as the Fangs are unlike pretty much any family you might encounter in your travels through life, the theme of the film, which is that our parents instill within us much of who we end up being in life, for better or worse, and the shadow they continue to cast while they are alive, is something that is almost universally relatable. 

As adults, siblings Annie and Baxter Fang are played by Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman, respectively.  Annie is a famous actress who has recently become a tabloid sensation after going topless in her latest film role, while Baxter is a struggling writer and journalist who still hasn't found great success.  Their parents, Caleb and Camille Fang, played in their older form by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett, are famous for being public performance artists who once used Annie and Baxter (whom they refer to as 'Child A' (Annie) and 'Child B' (Baxter)) to do pranks out in public in order to elicit a reaction from the crowds around that would be filmed with a camera as part of their art to show a certain truth about humanity by provoking it through the falsehood of their performance. 

As they grow older, the Fang children pull away from their exploitative parents, while also still influenced by their philosophies on life and art, though they continue to be challenged trying to fit in with so-called 'normal' society, unable to form permanent relationships and resorting to a bit of self-medication to ease their persistent anxiety.  The family reunites after Baxter is hospitalized during a journalistic piece he is writing that has him talking to men who enjoy shooting off spud guns (guess who gets shot with one?), though the relationships are now strained and they are all generally unhappy with their current situations in life.  Annie and Baxter additionally connect later after they receive notice that their parents may be the latest victims in a string of killings while on the road in North Carolina, with blood found in their abandoned vehicle, but no bodies in sight.  But are they truly dead, or is this yet another one of the infamous Fang family pranks meant to unite the once close family into another series of adventures?

David Lindsay-Abaire, who previously converted his own play into a 2010 movie that also stars Nicole Kidman (and for which she would receive her third Academy Award nomination), Rabbit Hole, adapts (at co-producer Kidman's request) the 2011 best-selling novel by Kevin Wilson, generally faithfully save for the ending, and the changing of the name of Jason Bateman's character from Buster to Baxter for reasons unknown (perhaps to avoid comparisons to another dysfunctional family featuring Bateman, TV's "Arrested Development"?).  Though most of it is set in the 'present', there are several flashbacks to the childhood of Annie and Baxter that shows some of the pranks they were made to perform, including a zany bank robbery, and a Central Park-staged public music performance in which they sing, quite awfully, "Kill All Parents".

As with many quirky indie comedies, The Family Fang deals with dysfunctional characters who end up searching for a way to find peace of mind and contentment with themselves. As such, it doesn't strongly follow a plotline, even though there is a core mystery as to the whereabouts of the Fang parents that propels many of the actions for the siblings through the second half of the film.  The more the film gets into the plotting, the less believable it becomes, so it's to Bateman's credit that he pushes it off as much as he can to build up the semi-comical characterizations.  Although it is lifted from the Kevin Wilson book, the story feels fresh and unique in the world of film, exploring distinctive, idiosyncratic characters in an oddball family dynamic that brings forth some interesting perspectives on the nature of families and why it's difficult the break out of the mold set by our parents.

Nicole Kidman gives a solid performance as Annie Fang, finding a great deal of conflict in her character that makes her a bundle of joy, sorrow, determination, and confusion, often at the same time.  Bateman remains grounded and subdued in one of his least sarcastic of roles, letting the family around him spin off most of the amusement, though he still maintains the deadpan delivery he has cultivated over his lifetime of acting.  Christopher Walken is also spot-on in one of his best performances in some time as the enthusiastic but overbearing patriarch, Caleb, whose narcissism drives his family along for the ride of his art, at the expense of their own ability to express themselves fully.  Maryann Plunkett may be the least well-known of the main four, but she beings a welcome geniality and approachability to the more passive character of Camille that gives the family a much-needed warmth they might otherwise lack with a more comedic actress in the part.  The generally underrated Kathryn Hahn, who also appears prominently in Bateman's Bad Words, plays the younger Camille, though in a less warm and less contemplative light than Plunkett.

While Bateman, as a director, doesn't quite have the visionary skillset to elevate the material into the sublime, a la Wes Anderson, or to draw forth genuinely emotional moments out of this angst-y look at a family struggling with ways to find connection to each other outside of their art, he does well with understated moments of reflective and bittersweet comedy. He also connects well with his performers to draw out rich characterizations and improvised touches to make them feel authentic, even when their actions are idealized.  It should be noted that Bateman comes from a family of artists himself, with his father Kent an actor, writer, producer and director, and, of course, his sister Justine of the popular 80s sitcom "Family Ties", so it stays close enough to home for him to find some truthful and occasionally personal moments from within this very unconventional story. 

The Family Fang is a bit absurdist in a way that may cater to mainstream tastes, but for those looking for a lighthearted but original look at a kooky family who immerse themselves in fantasy to try to resolve their problems in reality, it's a thoughtfully amusing, low-key effort from Bateman.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo