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The Family Fang

D: Jason Bateman / 106m

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Jason Butler Harner, Kathryn Hahn, Harris Yulin, Linda Emond, Marin Ireland, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Taylor Rose, Jack McCarthy, Kyle Donnery, Michael Chernus, Josh Pais

Annie and Baxter Fang (Kidman, Bateman) are the children of performance artists Caleb (Walken, Harner) and Camille Fang (Plunkett, Hahn). While growing up they took part in their parents’ various performances, which were often carried out in public places and without the people around them being aware they were taking part in a performance. Caleb and Camille have always used these “artistic moments” to highlight their idea that true art is only present in the moment it happens (they don’t acknowledge that they might be manipulating “art” in these circumstances rather than allowing it to be spontaneous).

As adults, Annie is an actress whose participation in a series of movies is under threat because she is no longer regarded as essential to the productions; she’s further challenged by a requirement to appear topless that she hadn’t previously agreed to. Baxter is a novelist whose last novel wasn’t well received. While he works on his latest book, he writes articles. On an assignment, he ends up shot in the head by a spud gun, and winds up in hospital. While he’s being treated, and much to Baxter’s consternation, the hospital staff contact Caleb and Camille, who agree to come and take him home. Not having seen his parents in years, Baxter contacts Annie and implores her to come and help him deal with them. Reluctantly, she agrees.

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Back at the Fang family residence, old animosities surrounding the way Annie and Baxter were treated as children, and their involvement with their parents’ art, leads to their being involved yet again in one of Caleb’s schemes. But it backfires, and Caleb and Camille announce they’re heading off for a break. A while later, the local sheriff informs Annie and Baxter that their parents’ car has been found at a rest stop. The pair are missing, and there’s blood all over the inside of the car; foul play is suspected. Annie is adamant that it’s yet another of their parents’ performances, and that they’ll turn up safe and sound somewhere sometime later. Baxter isn’t quite as certain, and harbours some doubts. Annie challenges him to help her look for them in order to prove she’s right, but their efforts go unrewarded, until a song from their past provides them with a lead, one that finds them learning some uncomfortable truths about their parents, and the reasons for their disappearance.

The Family Fang is Jason Bateman’s second directorial feature – after Bad Words (2013) – and while it’s the kind of indie project you might expect Bateman to be attracted to, it’s not as good a fit as it seems. From the trailer the movie looks like a comedy but while there are some great comedic moments, this is a drama that examines notions of parental responsibility, the function of art in everyday life, sibling dependency and rivalry, fame, and personal fulfillment. But while the movie examines these notions, what it doesn’t do as successfully, is reach any conclusions or provide any answers to the questions it raises.

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What it also fails to provide the audience with is anyone to connect with. For all of Annie’s complaining about her childhood, she’s actually broken away from her parents when we meet her. Any issues she has as an adult she relates back to when she was a child, but the movie – and in particular, David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s novel – doesn’t make a convincing connection between the two. Likewise, Baxter’s inability to stand up for himself when confronted with Caleb and Camille in the flesh. There are flashbacks to instances where Annie and Baxter’s involvement with their parents’ “art” can be construed as inappropriate, but these don’t adequately explain the animosity they display. Without that connection it’s hard to see Annie (specifically) and Baxter (occasionally) as anything but whinging ingrates.

Unfortunately for the viewer, Caleb and Camille don’t come off any better. The movie never reconciles their unwavering dedication to their art with the selfishness that goes with it, and it never attempts to explain or rationalise Caleb’s anger when the public doesn’t recognise or understand what he’s trying to say. And Camille is so much the uncomplaining follower that when it’s revealed she had a promising career ahead of her before she met Caleb, and that she gave it all up to be with him, her reasons for doing so sound insubstantial and contrived.

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As the feuding family, Kidman’s insecure and wailing Annie hogs most of the screen time, while Bateman takes a (largely) back seat as the lacking in confidence Baxter. Walken gives another of his semi-engaged performances, doing just enough to make it look like he’s interested, and is easily outgunned by Plunkett, who at least makes Camille a figure of sympathy even if she has only herself to blame for her predicament. As the younger Caleb and Camille, Harner and Hahn inject some much needed energy into proceedings, while Yulin contributes a pleasant enough cameo as Caleb’s mentor.

Watching The Family Fang, there are too many scenes where it feels that Bateman hasn’t gained a sufficient enough grip on things to make them entirely effective. Also, the pace of the movie works against it, as Bateman directs with a stubborn determination to make each scene work in the same way as all the others and with as much emotional impact (which is mostly diluted). The end result is a potentially intriguing movie that never finds its feet or a direction for it go in. And this despite some sterling camera work by Ken Seng and another wistful, deceptively emotive score by Carter Burwell.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie lacking in focus and drive, The Family Fang never rallies its constituent parts into a unified, satisfying whole; with no one to care about, the movie becomes a stilted, unconvincing piece that is only occasionally interesting, and some well judged moments of comedy aside, isn’t as sharp, or knowing, as it should be.