I like Jason Bateman’s second film as a director more than I do his first, Bad Words, but then, I didn’t care much for Bad Words. If this is a math equation it would be expressed like this: Bad Words – sh-t brown light filter + Christopher Walken x Nicole Kidman’s freezer face = A pretty okay movie. Look, if Terrence Howard can alter the fundamentals of mathematics with crystals, then I can solve algorithms with movies, dammit! But seriously, The Family Fang is a decent enough movie. It’s not bad, it’s not terribly involving, but the final scene is strong so it goes out on a high note, which will trick a lot of people into thinking they liked it when really they just watched it. It’s an indisputable fact that this is a movie you can watch.
Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists, so already you know they’re a couple of assholes. They forced their children, Annie and Baxter, to be in their performance art, which makes Annie and Baxter assholes by association. As adults Annie is an actress prone to meltdowns and Baxter is a writer not quite living up to the expectations produced by a successful first book. Nicole Kidman stars as Annie and Bateman as Baxter, and of the two of them, Kidman fares better. She has better material, though, as Annie actually undergoes upheaval and experiences emotions, while Bateman is coasting in “likeable dick” cruise control. As an actor I don’t think Bateman really has more than this one mode, and while it can be very effective in the right circumstances (see also: The Gift), this isn’t really the right circumstance. Baxter comes across as not so much damaged by his childhood as just a smug asshole, so it’s hard to muster much empathy for him.
Much easier to just focus on Annie as she tries to find her parents after they disappear while on a road trip. Because her parents are asshole performance artists who got famous for an elaborate series of pieces that are just Improv Everywhere, Annie doesn’t believe they’re really dead. So she tries to find them, convinced they’ve just gone into hiding as another piece, while Baxter wants her to accept that their parents are gone. It’s not bad as far as dysfunctional family drama goes, but it doesn’t really go deeper than the expected beats of this kind of movie, either. But Bateman’s direction is solid—he’s definitely got an eye for it, he’s just not yet connected with material that goes beyond surface gloss.
There are two scenes in Fang that work really well, though. The first is between Baxter and Annie, when they confront the reality that dead or not, Caleb and Camille are gone for real. Either they actually are dead, or else they faked their deaths, which is unforgiveable in the eyes of their children. Bateman hits on real emotion as Baxter in this scene, and Kidman is her usual reliable self. Basically Caleb and Camille are just asshole (performance artist) parents who forced their kids into things and in this scene Annie and Baxter make an active choice to let go of their parents and be their own people. It’s solid stuff, and it transcends the story to speak to the consequences of parents forcing their own dreams on their kids. And as the director, Bateman doesn’t push it, just lets it unfold in simple shot-reverse-shot structure that’s just nice and less blatantly movie.
The other scene that hits those more authentic notes is the final confrontation between Caleb, Camille, and their children. Of course they were faking because they’re asshole performance artists, but it turns out that Caleb actually has a secret family, with whom he’s living a much more normalized life—the kind of life that Annie pines for. Caleb is deeply unlikeable and Walken doesn’t shy from playing him as an outright miserable person and lousy parent, and there’s no attempt to redeem either him or Camille, who is the less awful parent. (Another takeaway is that not everyone should have kids.) Overall, The Family Fang isn’t any more than your standard family drama, but these two scenes give it a little oomph. It’s not particularly affecting and it won’t leave much of an impression, but it’s not bad, either. It is definitely a movie.
PS. Nicole Kidman wasn’t at TIFF to promote The Family Fang because she’s on stage in London. Here are the most recent shots of her.