Family is a strange thing, and cinema has always certainly agreed with that sentiment. There isn’t anything more complex, bizarre and personal than family, and what makes it so resonant is that everyone has a family, whether a traditional family or not. Cinema has always been obsessed with trying to represent the nuances and inherent weirdness of families – but there aren’t any two families that are alike, and the concept of the Norman Rockwell nuclear family has pretty much been thrown out the window. One film that shows family in an interesting light is The Family Fang, a wonderfully quirky and relatively touching drama that shows that family really is something that we can’t escape, regardless of how much we try.
Making his sophomore directorial effort after 2013’s Bad Words, Jason Bateman takes on an equally simple project, but does so very well. This isn’t the novelty of Jason Bateman directing a film like Bad Words was – he actually put some effort into this one (for the record, I did enjoy Bad Words very much – but it was driven a lot on the fact that Bateman was making his directorial debut). Tackling a very idiosyncratic and unique story (which is adapted from the novel of the same title by Kevin Wilson), Bateman proves himself not only as an actor, but also as a very capable director, who has the ability to make a thoroughly entertaining little film about family and the challenges that come with being an artist.
In The Family Fang, Bateman plays Baxter Fang, a writer who is best known for his first novel, and is desperately trying to prove his credibility after his second novel failed by writing a third, far more audacious novel. Nicole Kidman plays his sister, Annie Fang, who is an actress who is best known for her work in independent films, but is attempting to be a bigger star, even if that means starring in trash. They both are running away from something much bigger – their parents Caleb Fang (Christopher Walken) and Camille Fang (Maryann Plunkett) are world-famous performance artists known for their elaborate public pranks, which always placed their children (at the time known as “Child A” and “Child B”) right in the center. After an accident puts Baxter in the hospital, the family has to reunite to help him heal – but it turns out Baxter’s injury is minor compared to the actual healing that needs to happen, where everyone in the family has to face their problems and come to terms with the fact that they aren’t perfect, and that they have to be a united family, because they are all they have.
It seems like a relatively cliched, well-worn story of sticking together as a family – but it certainly isn’t, because just as the family seems to be facing their issues, Caleb and Camille disappear – the police seem to think it is foul play, and that they may be dead. Baxter also starts to think Caleb and Camille are dead. Annie, however, sees this as their ultimate performance piece, and she forces her brother to accompany her on a journey to find their parents. When they eventually find out the truth, they gain the closure, but not the closure they were expecting. What the film shows is two competing ideas – the idea of family, and how our parents shape us, and the concept of art. The two aren’t often seen to be related, but The Family Fang theorizes that art is an integral part of all aspects of life, and that art is something that isn’t able to be defined, because in a way, everything is art – the books that Baxter writes, the films that Annie makes, the paintings Camille does in private and the pranks Caleb has built his life out of. Perhaps the ultimate art is how a parent shapes and molds their children, which is the central theme in The Family Fang.
Whatever happened to Nicole Kidman’s career? I adore her as an actress, but even her most hardened fans have to admit that her career as of late has not been on par with what we have previously seen. Despite a great performance in The Paperboy, and some solid work in Paddington and other films, Kidman hasn’t been getting the work anyone would have expected from her a decade ago. Hollywood, unfortunately, has always been tough on actresses of a certain age – and Kidman is in a very awkward position, where she is perceived as being too old to be a ingenue, but too young to enter into the phase of being an elder stateswoman of cinema. I don’t agree with this idea, but I do think its very real, unfortunately. Thankfully, independent cinema is needlessly kind to almost everyone, and Kidman did well to try independent cinema, because if there are two factors that makes independent cinema unique, it is that it has the ability to tell absolutely unique and fascinating stories that mainstream Hollywood won’t touch, and it often brings out the best performances out of its actors, especially stars that give independent cinema a try. Kidman gives her best performance in many years as Annie Fang, and her nuance and grace fits this independent drama perfectly. I am pleased that Kidman did this film, because while there are a dozen other actresses I could have seen in the role, Kidman was perfect for it, as she benefitted the film in much the same way that the film benefitted her – she gave the film gravitas and credibility, and the film offered her the chance to give her best performance in a long time.
Bateman is very good, and he fits this independent role much more than he fits the mainstream Hollywood comedy role he constantly plays. However, his performance is very reactionary, as he doesn’t really do much in terms of acting other than just being around actors that give much better performances. One such actor was Hollywood icon Christopher Walken, who plays Caleb Fang. Walken is always very consistent – even in the worst films, he’s normally a scene-stealer, and always very good. However, he has somewhat descended into playing himself in most roles (as have many iconic actors from the 1970s – think Robert De Niro and Al Pacino), and it gets a bit tiring to see Walken play the same derivative vaguely creepy but charismatic old man that he’s been doing lately. The Family Fang shows a new side to Walken – almost completely humorless, and without relying on any of his iconic traits, he plays Caleb with a lot of intensity, and shows us a man questioning is own life and his own career, and whether or not it was worth it. It is a compelling performance, and far from Walken’s best performance, it does show that he is able to still play very interesting and strangely captivating characters. Maryann Plunkett is wonderful as well, but she doesn’t serve much purpose, and she exists in the film solely as a plot point, which is unfortunate because her character could have been far more compelling and developed.
The film does have some flaws. For one, it is completely tonally inconsistent – it isn’t sure if it wants to be a comedy, or a drama, and instead of being a seamless blend of the two, it seems to be alternating between the two, which doesn’t make for the most compelling experience – it begins as a light and breezy comedy-drama, but slowly becomes much more serious, and while it does try and inject humour throughout, it fails slightly, because in the final moments, where we would expect to feel something, we rather feel a little bored. I am disappointed by the anti-climatic conclusion to the film, perhaps not in the story, but rather in the execution of the ending. Bateman is still getting there as a director, and while this may not be the pinnacle of great filmmaking, it surely shows that he isn’t an actor who just happens to be directing as well, but rather as a budding director who actually has quite a bit of talent coming through.
The Family Fang is a wonderfully cute film, and while it isn’t anything new, it is a well-made little drama, and features strong performances from its cast, particularly Walken and Kidman. Bateman should direct again, because he’s clearly onto something here. I thought The Family Fang was a great look at the meaning of family, and the definition of art, and overall a critique of society as a whole. I enjoyed it tremendously, but I fear some may be bored by it. I was captivated, but otherwise, it isn’t groundbreaking filmmaking – but it is still a wonderful bit of entertainment.