Jason Bateman has a way with family dysfunction, as his eye for weariness doesn’t ignore humor nor allow cruelty a free pass. And in his second directed feature, The Family Fang, Bateman digs past his familiar absurdity, down through and passing by the tragic bedrock providing the foundation of the comedy, into the family’s quiet introspective core.
The Family Fang are a nuclear group of performance artists who gained notoriety for flash mob-style pranks in the 70s, orchestrated by the parents and abetted by the children. One, for instance, involves the family pulling off a fake bank heist and a subsequent shootout — all caught on tape, of course. All grown up, the children (Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman) suffer from the repercussions of their childhood while their parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) have failed to move on. When the parents disappear, in what looks like another in a series of rest stop abduction/homicides, the kids are stuck between denial and their wariness of not being in on the joke. They’ve been on the other side of the camera for so long, so how do they differentiate tragedy from a prank?
Embedded in this mystery are layers of artistic authenticity and the applicability to film. The Fang patriarch wants nothing more than to provide vital, unexpected art to an audience that is often the butt of the joke. Critics on both ends of the spectrum of pandering overthought and blanket dismal appear, sniping each other (and the art) while sending up the process without dismissing it. The pursuit of art, and what qualifies as art, is thoroughly mocked and smartly chipped at by satirical flashbacks to the “pieces” and fake documentary clips, jabbing at the self-seriousness of an artist while encouraging its protagonists (the children) who are artists in their own right.
Kidman, in one of her finest recent performances, plays a spiraling actress whose tragic magnetism makes it hard to deny that the film is about acting as a profession. Her scenes allow her to tap into key factors driving those who choose performance as a profession: the fear, tension and self-doubt — overcome by a decreasingly false confidence. This “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude bleeds over into to real life, as we see in the flashbacks to the fake performance pieces, intoxicating its practitioners. The blurring of the line between real feelings and a performer’s over-empathy peaks in the introduction to the Fang parents whom meet us wearing neck braces and bandages, attempting to experience “the fun” of their son’s injury by proxy.
Walken is the other standout, both terrifying and bitter as the perfectly disappointed dad. His selfishness blends that of a parent’s loss of individuality and an artist’s loss of creative freedom. We understand why he incorporates his children in his profession before he does. Bateman, the king of dry reactions, takes a nice metered step back so Kidman can truly shine as the star.
As the precarious line between real and performance is balanced along, it becomes increasingly difficult not to read The Family Fang as the fictionalized extrapolations of a former child star. While the flashbacks are often hard to watch and may not elicit more humor than a cold smirk, they serve as a sepia-toned parody of child actor-dom and the oddball things lurking in grown child actors’ memories. Bateman’s dry, often tragic reaction to his characters’ pasts feels all the more cathartic as he moves on to a new stage in his career (despite the echo in his character’s success as a novelist feeling a bit too trite).
Bateman brings the full force of his directorial ability to the film, finding beauty in every camera placement and character movement. Cross-faded editing into multiple flashbacks along different timelines flows far better than it should. If nothing else, The Family Fang is temporally impressive. But there’s much more to it than that. Bateman’s expressiveness in a movie as grounded as this (despite the absurd premise) makes him an extremely exciting directorial talent. Art can injure and art can heal, but the important thing is to keep moving forward.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.