MOVIE REVIEW: The Family Fang

(Image courtesy of Starz Digital)


The core of the dysfunctional family at the center of Jason Bateman's "The Family Fang" invokes a particular curiosity.  Do weird parents raise and make weird children?  Name your odd occupation and examine that question yourself.  For example, what are the kids of two circus clown parents like?  Do they grow up with the same sense of humor or performance?  Do they relish that irregular environment because that was their preeminent example or do they rebel and long for something more typically normal?

Through flashback and a new present-day challenge in this film, we witness the saga of the Fang family.  Caleb and Camille Fang are notorious practical jokers who are tabloid and minor celebrity legends.  The Fangs create, research, and stage elaborate public stunts they call "pieces," long before the days of "Jackass" and more intricate than "Candid Camera."  They, in addition to a strong section of their critics and fans, consider themselves true artists that pronounce a valuable and expressive message with each of their pieces.  Academy Award winner Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett play the aged Caleb and Camille while Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hann play their younger selves.  

Front and center as co-conspirators to the show are their own daughter and son, Annie and Baxter Fang, who they coyly nickname Child A and Child B for performance purposes.  During their childhood and adolescence, the two were unforced partakers.  As adults, played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman, that zeal for nonsense is gone and the two are mostly estranged from their parents.  Annie is now a starlet actress with a track record of weak decision-making that puts her a few steps away from a meltdown or career suicide.  Baxter has become a broke academic author with writer's block.

Both siblings show an answer of desiring normalcy from that initial question of how do the kids turn out.  When Caleb and Camille's car is found wrecked and blood-soaked at an apparent crime scene, Annie and Baxter are informed that their parents have disappeared under what appears to be violent circumstances of foul play.  Annie doesn't buy it.  She thinks this is another extreme hoax to outwit the public and, worse, keep their own children in the dark about it.  The more pensive Baxter more readily accepts the distinct possibility that their parents might be dead.  "The Family Fang" follows this mystery and family drama through.

As a whole, "The Family Fang" is an impressive step up in prestige and class for Jason Bateman as his second directorial effort after "Bad Words" in 2013.  This film, which has made a splash on the festival scenes of Toronto and Tribeca, tackles far richer and more complicated dynamics than "Bad Words."  Bateman brought in more talent in front of and behind the camera to achieve that quality.  From the opening credits, composer Carter Burwell's musical score sets a tone that sways from dancing to reflective that suits the film perfectly.  Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole") handsomely adapts the quirks and oddness of Kevin Wilson's novel source, a book that landed on many "best of" and bestseller lists from 2011.

In front of the camera, despite the comedy nature of this lifestyle and premise, this is the gloves-off, resolute Christopher Walken we haven't seen since "Catch Me if You Can," not the "Balls of Fury" caricature Christopher Walken that collects paychecks.  He is fiercely invested in creating the complicated and beguiling patriarch.  He an electric enigma that requires the equally invested performances from Kidman and Bateman to figure him out  Like Walken, Kidman steps away from the "Paddington" lampoon and reminds us how good of a serious actress she remains while approaching 50.  Bateman is an superb match, adding another notable dramatic performance away from his cringe-comedy tendencies.  Together, this becomes a strong actor's showcase.  As a dysfunctional family specimen, "The Family Fang" boasts a compelling draw with these fine actors guiding the ship in their top forms.

LESSON #1: PUTTING AWAY CHILDISH THINGS-- The movie doesn't use the C.S. Lewis quote, but it fits.  In Annie and Baxter, we meet two grown children who, while damaged and flawed in their own right, are more mature and realistic than their own parents.  Normal parental wisdom was replaced with a fanciful notion of adventure with the jokes.  If anything, the two siblings learned to bond with each other out of circumstance.

LESSON #2: THE ART OF THE HOAX-- "The Family Fang" lays out the unusual obsession of the mother and father.  We see the artistic drive, sensibility, nuance, details, commitment, creativity, planning, and resulting reactions that come from their pieces.  It allows us as the audience to judge them as clever artists or loony quacks.

LESSON #3: WHEN DOES A JOKE GO TOO FAR?-- Caleb and Camille considered their upbringing to be adventurous instead of damaging in pushing their mischievous spirit.  But was it careless and immoral more than character-building?  At what point were the children used as pawns and bait selfishly instead of willing participants?  If the two parents are currently presumed dead as another hoax of supreme artistic dedication, have they now gone too far?