The Family Fang

The Family Fang

2016, R, 105 min. Directed by Jason Bateman. Starring Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Linda Emond, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Taylor Rose.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., May 6, 2016

An atonal chorus of “Kill all parents!,” fervently sung by two adolescent siblings eager to please their mom and dad, reverberates throughout the tonally shifting dramedy The Family Fang. It sounds like fingernails on the chalkboard of an unhappy childhood. Based on Kevin Wilson’s darkly comic 2011 novel, the film precariously balances on an outlandish premise: Husband-and-wife performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang (Walken and Plunkett) stage and film living-theatre pieces that conceptually manipulate reality in everyday settings, such as a simulated bank robbery employing fake blood or an engineered high-school production of Romeo and Juliet pairing brother and sister as the star-crossed lovers. But the ultimate ick factor in these experimental art pieces is the required participation of their two young offspring, Annie and Baxter, otherwise objectively referred to as “Child A” and “Child B.” It’s a childhood tailor-made for an adult life on the therapist’s couch, as the grownup Annie (Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman) struggle in their own fashion with the psychic wounds of an unorthodox upbringing. (She’s a career-slumped film actress with a drinking problem and an insatiable need for attention; he’s a blocked writer who artistically peaked with his first novel and is now floundering to produce anything else.) When their lives once again intersect with their estranged parents, the two resist the plea to engage in one more staged prank for old times’ sake, much to the angry disappointment of the Fang patriarch, surely one of the most unsympathetic father figures ever to appear on film. When the senior Fangs (that name!) depart for a hasty vacation the next day in a Winnebago that’s later found abandoned and soaked in blood, the question of what’s real and not real once again rears its ugly philosophical head for Annie and Baxter. The way they see it, they lose either way.

Admittedly, The Family Fang presents a tricky narrative, one predicated on the semi-serious notion that it’s the parents’ job to screw up their kids’ lives. For most of the film, Bateman, the director, manages to bring out the two principals’ anguish without resorting to sentimentality, until the unsatisfying last quarter of the film when things get gooey as an empowered brother and sister literally walk hand-in-hand in emotional solidarity. The movie deserves a better ending, particularly its middling resolution (huh?) of the mystery of the elder Fangs’ suspicious disappearance. Bateman, the actor, reins in the droll smart-assery he’s trademarked in the past decade or so, and you see something deeper in him here. Kidman (who optioned Wilson’s novel and co-produced the film, whose screenplay was written by Kidman’s Rabbit Hole screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire) starts strong out of the gate, but fades somewhat as Annie begins to serve as the counterpoint to Baxter’s less anger-driven perspective on things. But in a scene in which their characters engage in a quiet, tear-filled conversation about the futility of changing the past through the present, Bateman and Kidman connect beautifully. For the siblings, it’s a moment of clarity in a lifetime of a familial dysfunction.

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The Family Fang, Jason Bateman, Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Linda Emond, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Taylor Rose

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