(The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival ran April 21-May5. Stay tuned to HtN for reviews as they start pouring in. Also, The Family Fang starts tomorrow, Friday, May 13, in select theaters nationwide as well as on VOD.)
Jason Bateman is no stranger to the aggravation of selfish, irresponsible parents. On Arrested Development, he played arguably the most put-upon son in television history. Bateman returns to the well for his second directorial outing, adapting Kevin Wilson’s novel, The Family Fang. Bateman and Nicole Kidman play a pair of adult siblings who are developmentally arrested by their childhood spent being the unwitting participants in their parents’ surreptitious public art performances. Think the lesson pranks George Bluth paid J. Walter Weatherman to pull on his children. Only this time, the intent is a lot less explicit and the emotional consequences much less humorous.
Parenthood is usually fraught with the fear of traumatizing our children, even with the best of intentions. Not so for Caleb and Camille Fang (played in their later years by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett), who have long viewed their offspring, Annie and Baxter, as little more than pawns. It’s not entirely clear what they hope to accomplish when they force their children to play the doomed, smooching lovers in Romeo and Juliet, or when they make Baxter hold up a bank for lollipops and then “shoot” an “innocent bystander” (his mother). Sometimes, Caleb will conclude the performance with a platitude about seizing the day. But, for the most part, it just seems like they enjoy screwing with people.
A sporadic fake documentary motif feels a bit shoehorned, providing exposition regarding the public’s perception of the Fangs’ work. It’s not hard to deduce that the Fangs would have been divisive. But the consensus is that Camille and Caleb’s stunts lacked impact after their children were no longer involved. Annie (an actress) and Baxter (a writer) have grown up to become artists in their own right, albeit ones that Caleb refuses to validate. The artists formerly known as Child A and Child B also picked up substance abuse habits and solitary lifestyles. They barely even speak to each other, until research for an article lands Baxter in the hospital. Listed at next of kin, Caleb and Camille arrive against Baxter’s wishes and Annie rushes to her brother’s side to provide a buffer.
The parents see the inadvertent reunion as an opportunity to get the band back together. But when Annie and Baxter refuse to play, Caleb and Camille’s next stunt crashes and burns. The elders skulk off on a road trip, but soon go missing, with signs of foul play left in their camper van. Smelling a rat, Annie begins a desperate investigation, believing that finding them will somehow lead to redemption for the whole family. Baxter seems almost relieved about the turn of events. If their parents are indeed dead, they are off the hook forever. And if it is just another hoax, do they really want to reunite with parents who would let their children think they’ve been murdered?
Christopher Walken is pitch perfect as the senior Fang patriarch, holding court with slightly mad artistic fervor and an undertone of menace. [On a personal note, it was thrilling to hear Walken say my name repeatedly]. One small disappointment was that Jason Butler Harner, who plays young Caleb, didn’t speak his lines with a Walken cadence. This begs the question, when and why did Caleb Fang start talking like that?
Plunkett plays Camille with a fearful resignation, conveying so many conflicting emotions in her performance. Once an equal partner in their endeavors, she seems to have lost her taste for it. She instead exercises her creativity by painting, but hides her output from Caleb, knowing his narrow, unwavering mind in regard to what constitutes art.
Bateman and Kidman transmit powerful sibling chemistry. They have an effortless rapport, despite their characters’ estrangement. The adult lives of their characters felt a little underdeveloped. But perhaps it would be next to impossible to lead a normal life when your parents viewed your happiness and well being as lowest priority.
The Family Fang is far from the feel good movie of the year. But it has purpose. There’s a sense of hope in the resolution. You can’t control what happened in your past. But you can choose not to let it control your future.
– Jessica Baxter @tehBaxter)