Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jason Bateman
Stars: Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Michael Chernus, Harris Yulin, Josh Pais, Jason Butler Harner, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Linda Edmond, Jack McCarthy, Kyle Donnery, Taylor Rose.
This was one of two films I saw at MIFF about unorthodox, dysfunctional and troubled families – the other was Captain Fantastic, which boasted an impressive performance from Viggo Mortensen. The Family Fang is a quirky comedy about an eccentric family. Based on the 2011 novel written by Kevin Wilson, it is also an exploration of the creative process, complex family relationships, the damage that parents can do to their kids, and sibling bonding.
Caleb and Camille Fang (played by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) are a couple of maverick avante garde performance artists who are given over to creating largely improvised and disruptive public performances, such as a bank robbery that goes wrong, that involve their two young children. But these performance pieces have also shaped their two children Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Jason Bateman), known as Child A and Child B. They have been left emotionally and psychologically damaged by their unconventional upbringing and the psychological abuse. Even as adults some thirty years later they continue to struggle. Annie is a B-grade actress whose troubled off-screen life and alcoholism are fodder for the tabloids, while the younger Baxter is a once successful writer who is suffering from writer’s block. They have long been estranged from their parents. They live on different coasts.
But an unfortunate accident puts Baxter in the hospital and precipitates an awkward family reunion. But then shortly afterwards Caleb and Camille go missing. Their car is found abandoned with blood stains on the seats. The police suspect foul play, but Annie and Baxter are not so sure. They suspect that this may be yet another of their parents’ elaborate performance pieces and they set out to find the truth.
Plenty of flashback sequences, shot on Super 8, faux found footage montages, and snippets from an unfinished documentary on the Fangs give us some insights into the troubled history and darker secrets of this unusual family. However the film spans forty years, and the fractured time line becomes a little messy and confusing at times. And the ending is slightly disappointing.
This is the sophomore film for Bateman as a director, following 2013’s Bad Words, but it is a leap in quality for him as a director. It also feels more personal for Bateman. The layered screenplay has been written by Pulitzer prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (who also wrote Rabbit Hole, etc). Lindsay-Abaire gives the material its offbeat and slightly subversive quality.
All the central characters are flawed, and the roles give the actors plenty to work with. Kidman and Bateman establish a tense dynamic as the estranged siblings who have a different take on their parents’ disappearance. Kidman is good and brings a brittle quality to her role as the more cynical and insecure Annie. Bateman brings unexpected gravitas and pathos to his understated performance. Walken adds yet another colourful eccentric character to his resume, but he is essentially on cruise control here, reining in his usual mannerisms and intensity.
The Family Fang is a sophisticated film, a slightly offbeat and unconventional but original comedy/drama that will struggle to find broad audience appeal despite its stronger than usual cast. Its black humour and deadpan stylings may remind audiences of the early films of Wes Anderson. But while this character driven piece has a subversive quality it also ultimately lacks bite.