REVIEW: The Family Fang [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: April 29th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Starz Digital Media
Director(s): Jason Bateman
Writer(s): David Lindsay-Abaire / Kevin Wilson (novel)

“Let this be your trumpet call: life is sweet so taste it while you still can”

No one knows Nicole Kidman‘s strength as an actor quite like Nicole Kidman. It’s no secret that the choices she’s made post-Oscar win for The Hours have been somewhat questionable, but there was at least one fantastic gem in the mix. The film was Rabbit Hole, an adaptation by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play in which she served as producer and lead. Not only was the work great, Kidman herself has rarely been better. So learning her next best role since was also produced by the same team and adapted by Lindsay-Abaire hardly proves surprising. The Family Fang (based on the novel by Kevin Wilson) was her baby and she doesn’t disappoint. Neither does her selection as director Jason Bateman whose sophomore effort is not unlike his debut.

Until reading how Kidman was the main impetus behind the film’s genesis I wondered about the childhood Bateman endured to cause him to gravitate towards material with such selfishly unredeemable father figures. I still wonder—his being one half of a celebrity child sibling pair couldn’t have been idyllic—because he did sign on to fill the director’s chair even if he hadn’t propelled the adaptation himself. To speak too much about parentage in his Bad Words is to ruin some of its surprises, but let’s just say disappointment in one’s father plays a large role. The Family Fang is quite similar with its patriarch Caleb Fang’s (Christopher Walken) expertise in manipulation and rhetoric turning those he loves into props for artistic aspiration. Surely Kidman saw the parallel.

I admittedly knew nothing of what to expect going into this one, so saying the opening shocked me isn’t overstating my experience. I literally said “WTF” seconds before an extra exclaims the exact same sentiments because what happens is so random and seemingly without meaning. It’s funny because this is also what a fictional art critic says to describe Caleb (played by Jason Butler Harner as a younger iteration) and wife Camille’s (played by Maryann Plunkett alongside Walken at present and Kathryn Hahn with Harner in flashback) performance art within the public sector. The family believes they’re injecting lemmings that sleepwalk through life with much-needed excitement. This critic (Scott Shepherd) calls them hacks while his colleague (Steve Witting) compares them to the Dadaists. No one is wrong.

The Fangs are inciting a reaction in those unsuspecting strangers forced to participate in their stunts—charades in which their children Baxter (Bateman at present) and Annie (Kidman at present) are involved and perhaps exploited. Whether or not this is art is in the eye of the beholder. Some of us let critics dictate that eye, some blindly accept that an artist is anyone who calls him/herself by the label, and others take it upon themselves to make their own decision. It took a few years for Baxter and Annie to find the strength to do the latter, but they finally did. He became a moderately successful writer and she a Tabloid-favorite actress. Away from Mom and Dad for so long, however, they eventually find themselves back home.

And here is where the main plot is propelled. Unwilling to help Caleb with his latest stunt—his many attempts to find success without the kids has proved disastrous—he and Camille decide to leave for a couple days alone. Like clockwork the Sheriff knocks on the door the next morning and explains to Annie and Baxter that the Fangs’ car was found abandoned by the side of the road with substantial amounts of blood. Considering a rash of homicides had occurred of late in that area, they believe foul play involved. Annie refuses to accept anything other than it being her parents’ latest hoax while Baxter sees the tragedy in its reality and fiction. Because what’s worse than your parents being dead? Them pretending they are.

So the siblings go on a wild goose chase to uncover clues within past escapades and current psychological states while finding old acquaintances and trying to move on. The comedy is big with loud guffaws due to crazy situational humor, but don’t ignore the emotional weight behind them. Bateman and especially Kidman excel at the darker moments of revelation. They remember when the “art” stopped being fun and why they left without looking back. And they lament the fact that despite it all they still wish things could be different. Both became artists whether or not Caleb believes their paths were “true art” or not. They even still hear his voice calming them down when about to go onstage. It’s impossible to completely run from your past.

It’s not unheard of to survive it, though. This is Wilson’s thesis and the glue holding The Family Fang together while also making it resonate with anyone that grew up amongst dysfunction (all of us). The world defined Annie and Baxter as the letters their father uses in interviews (“Child A” and “Child B”) so that it became intrinsic to the work and therefore their lives. They defined themselves in much the same way as a result. Every choice they made has been from that filter and it’s placed them in their current positions with moderate substance abuse and self-image problems threatening to derail the little success they earned despite the Fang name. Perhaps their parent’s disappearance is a welcome excuse to finally stop.

There are many relationships that probably benefit from the extra room a novel provides, but I think Lindsay-Abaire does well condensing things with enough detail to provide relevance for their inclusion. The message comes through loud and clear—bolstered by the memorable central performances (Walken and Plunkett deserve praise too)—and I found myself entertained by moments light and dark. The premise is absurd but the emotions conjured from it aren’t. I also didn’t see the full scope of the direction its mystery eventually takes coming. With enough surprises to keep the audience honest and enough familial strife to force the filmmakers into retaining a necessary authenticity, there’s a lot to like. The film isn’t without faults, but its singular and relatable voice masks them well.

[1] Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman in The Family Fang.
Photo: courtesy Starz Digital.
[2] Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett in The Family Fang.
Photo: courtesy Starz Digital.
[3] Jack McCarthy and Mackenzie Brooke Smith in The Family Fang. Photo: courtesy Starz Digital.

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