Jason Bateman is getting better and better at directing. Working with an adaption of Kevin Wilson‘s novel, by screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”), this is his second movie behind the camera. He rounds up a great ensemble of actors (himself included) to deliver a funny, sensitive, and layered piece of work. It’s an original story about the thin, squiggly, line between art and life, comfortably swaying between comedy and drama. To call “The Family Fang” an improvement on Bateman’s debut “Bad Words“, would be an understatement. A dysfunctional structure and some bizarre plotting stop the film from reaching greatness, but never from being endearingly satisfying.
The Fang family unit is really, really strange. As seen in the opening sequence, they’re pranksters who practice experimental public performance art. The first one we see, to give you an idea, is a young boy walking into a bank with a gun and adorably holding up the place for all the lollipops. A cop, upon seeing the gun, runs to stop him. The gun goes off, the bullet misses the cop, but hits an innocent female bystander, who just happened to be there with her daughter. The emotional scene between these four principal actors is interrupted when the boy breaks character to taste the woman’s blood. An older lady puts it perfectly; “what the fuck is this?”
Now all grown up, Annie (Nicole Kidman) is an actress who has trouble connecting with her recent roles, and Baxter (Bateman) is a struggling writer who’s stuck in the middle of his latest novel. Annie has a tendency to get a little “loopy,” drink a bit too much, and get forced into stuff her better senses tell her to stay away from, like going topless for a scene for no artistic reason. She follows her family maxim of controlling the chaos so that it may happen around her, not to her, and does the topless scene anyway. Baxter’s no different. He’s sent to write an article about potato guns, and controls the chaos by playing William Tell’s feat of the apple-shot. They both take it too far: photos of Annie are all over the tabloids the next day, and Baxter gets shot in the head by a potato. These two are so messed up because their parents, Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett), always treated them as props to their performance art pieces, and not children.
Baxter’s accident brings the family back together, except that things get real awkward real fast. Annie’s insecurities grow by the minute, Baxter’s complacent attitude seems to drive him into further depression, while Caleb and Camille’s latest piece backfires which Caleb blames on his children. It’s not long before the parents decide to take a spontaneous trip, leading to an unexpected phone call from the police – their car is found in a ditch, with traces of blood in it, and they’re nowhere to be found. Whether this is just another performance piece or the real deal is the mystery Annie and Baxter must solve. Both are quick to jump to different conclusions, and the film does a solid job of keeping the audience invested and on edge. Though once it gets solved, it’s more than a bit dispiriting.
What makes “The Family Fang” such an intriguing, original story is its layered approach to dissecting the definition of art and the creative process. It keeps its heart firmly beating between the bond of two siblings. The Fangs become famous for their performance art, inspiring thesis papers, and – in an early highlight – a discussion between two critics (The Village Voice vs. Artforum) on what value their art holds. Snippets of an incomplete documentary show Caleb discussing his thoughts about art as something that must be alive, that life itself must be treated as art, while something like photography is dead. Annie’s acting and Baxter’s creative writing process segue into the film’s themes in revelatory ways, and a few key moments from their past has some hard-hitting stuff to say about the dangers of sacrificing one’s family for the sake of art. When it’s all said and done, there’s plenty of food for thought left for discussion, and wherever your opinion lies, that’s never be a bad thing.
If only the execution wasn’t so messy in parts, “The Family Fang” would’ve been even greater. The film’s back-and-forth time jumps become disorienting by the midway-point, a major plot-point is revealed in the silliest of ways, and Bateman adds too much emphasis to more than one unnecessary montage. Basically, the film could do with one final visit to the editing room, as long as the performances don’t get tampered with. Kidman, Walken, and Bateman are particularly terrific. Kidman disappears into the role, proving once again that she’s at her best when not playing larger-than-life characters. Bateman has given himself the familiar role of the downbeat cynic but charges it with an emotional gravitas you won’t see coming. And Walken’s mostly on cruise control, having a blast, until he effortlessly adds delicate depth in a few crucial exchanges.
Like most families in this world, “The Family Fang” is dysfunctional and slightly disappointing, but it proves without a shadow of a doubt that Bateman is improving nicely as a director. Anyone who saw “Bad Words” had perfectly good reason to question his skills, seeing as how toothless and unfortunately unfunny that movie is. Thanks to “The Family Fang,” however, we can all forget about shabby beginnings and get excited again about his future as a director. [B]