Maybe it was the years he spent on Arrested Development or the numerous comedies he's starred in, but Jason Bateman has a definite handle on family dysfunction. His sophomore effort behind the camera, The Family Fang, is a much tougher emotional lift than his debut, the vulgar comedy Bad Words. While that film was pretty uneven, Bateman strikes a nice balance between the bizarre and the endearing, even going so far as to juggle a complicated narrative structure like a seasoned veteran.
Penned by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, reuniting with his Rabbit Hole star Nicole Kidman, the film is a note-perfect adaptation of Kevin Wilson's novel. Bateman pulls double duty as sibling Baxter Fang, with Kidman as his sister Annie, who grew up in the shadow of their eccentric parents, Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett), performance artists lost in their own world. The story actually begins in flashback that tells you all you need to know about Baxter and Annie's upbringing. It begins with Baxter adorably holding up a bank for extra lollipops, only for the security guard to get involved and a shootout commence. A woman is shot in the process, much to the horror of the customers. Shock turns to confusion when the boy starts laughing, the injured woman sits up, and they all leave with the guard like nothing ever happened.
Life is a performance for the Fangs; a carefree piece of theater that reality rarely intrudes upon. They live by the code of controlling the chaos so that it happens around you, not to you, a philosophy which sounds better than it turns out in practice. The Fangs have no problem using their kids in any number of performances and get-rich-quick schemes. It afforded them a fun and unique childhood, but also a skewed outlook on life. Years later the kids have grown up to live really screwed up lives. Annie is a renowned actress with her share of personal demons, and a startling inability to connect with people. Baxter's an author who can't seem to finish writing his next novel. In his own attempt to "control the chaos", he takes story on potato guns a little too far and gets shot in the head with a spud. The accident brings the Fangs back together again, just as topless photos of Annie on the set of her latest film emerge.
A nuanced and funny look at art, creative genius, and mental instability, The Family Fang doesn't swing for the fences with big, overdone antics. Instead, it's content to let these quirky (in a good way) characters breathe so that the humor flows naturally from their interactions. Caleb continues to exist under the impression that the world is a stage with him as the star. In one of the film's most clever exchanges, the true social impact of the Fang's famous theatrics is debated by two very different critics. Meanwhile, Baxter and Annie are getting to see up close and personal why their lives haven't quite worked out as planned. But Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay doesn't let them off the hook for the part they played, even as we can easily see how their childhoods led to the people they became. In a film such as this it's tough to draw that 'point A' to 'point B' connection, but it's not a problem here.
The final act is an issue, however, as a major revelation occurs out of nowhere and the film turns into a toothless murder mystery. It feels out of place, and distracts from the terrific character work being done by all. Kidman is especially good here, and while she's no longer the big draw she once was, her performances in these smaller movies lately cannot be missed. Walken, too, shows his knack for adding real depth to larger-than-life characters. Bateman, perhaps by design, gets less to do but he shows perceptible growth behind the camera, which is what matters. The Family Fang very easily could have turned into something cutesy and sitcom-esque, but Bateman was smart enough to let this peculiar little gem play out in a way that feels genuine.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5