There’s an illuminating moment late in Jason Bateman‘s richly captivating film of The Family Fang, when the unorthodox patriarch played with a sardonic glint by Christopher Walken says to his adult offspring, “You think we damaged you? So what! That’s what parents do.” That’s close enough to a key to this smart, tart adaptation of Kevin Wilson‘s best-selling 2011 debut novel, which thumbs its nose at the cliches of the over-trafficked dysfunctional family genre to dissect the sometimes lifelong quest of children to understand their parents in ways that are funny and bittersweet, poignant and often bracingly dark.
The inherent interiority of prose can make works about eccentric clans quite a tricky prospect for screen transfer. Just ask Ryan Murphy and the handful of people who recall his grating 2006 take on Augusten Burroughs‘ Running With Scissors. But every choice here feels right, starting with getting playwright David Lindsay-Abaire on board as screenwriter.
Acutely observed and graced with equal parts humor and honest feeling.
Before his Pulitzer-winning breakthrough drama about grief, Rabbit Hole (the film of which starred Nicole Kidman, who first optioned this material), Lindsay-Abaire made his name in the theater with sweetly subversive comedies about misfit characters trying to get a handle on their place in an absurd universe. That canvas, along with his more sober later works, comes into play in this beautiful adaptation. His script navigates with assurance the supple shifts from antic humor to uneasy family conflict and into a possible murder mystery before emerging out the other side as a layered and affecting consideration of parent-child relationships.
In addition to marking a leap in maturity from Bateman’s modest first outing as director, Bad Words, the new movie also provides him with a wonderful acting vehicle. The give-and-take dynamic and intimate sibling shorthand between his character, Baxter Fang, and his sister, Annie, played by Kidman, feels unerringly real, suggesting a whole history that spans childhood adventures through adult disenchantment.
After a well-received first novel and a “divisive” follow-up, Baxter is stuck on a third book that’s two years overdue. Annie has gotten her drinking and impulsive behavior more or less under control, but her career as a screen actress is sputtering as the good roles stop coming.
Baxter takes an assignment for a men’s magazine to write about war veterans in upstate New York (some locations have been changed from the book) shooting supercharged potato guns for recreational therapy. But his enthusiastic embrace of their sport ends with him getting shot in the head; to his horror, his parents are contacted to take charge of his convalescence. Annie is also prompted to pause and take stock after her latest unwelcome tabloid exposure and an Esquire profile during which she reveals too much and sleeps with the reporter (an amusing Danny Burstein). Baxter convinces her that if he can face time with their parents, she can too.
Their return home brings back memories of the 1970s, when they were Child A and Child B in elaborate spontaneous New York performance pieces masterminded by their parents, Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett). In a hilarious take on the contemporary art world, these stunts are dismissed as pranks by the Fangs’ detractors and hailed as acts of Dadaist genius by their admirers. Baxter prefers to leave those sometimes confusing experiences archived in the past, while Annie remains obsessed with them, poring over old video recordings.
Those video and film clips, seen throughout, are blasts of anarchic mischief, with Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn as the younger Fang parents. We witness a bank lollipop robbery, a sabotaged beauty pageant, a human firework and a beach burial. In one piece loaded with significance, the young Annie (Mackenzie Smith) and Baxter (Jack McCarthy) perform a tuneless song she wrote called “Kill All Parents,” demonstrating a stunning absence of musicianship. When their incognito parents start heckling from the crowd in Central Park, a fight breaks out, which makes it a triumph for Caleb.
His motivation in these public interventions is to invite people to open their eyes and experience the unexpected. And his lesson to his children has always been to own the moment, thus controlling the chaos that happens around them.
But when the grown-up Baxter and Annie return home it exposes the declining success of the senior Fangs’ stunts as they go it alone in a world in which YouTube and social media can make anyone a performance artist. There are also subtle signals of the differences between Caleb, who is a purist, dedicated to the work, and Camille, who’s in it for love, though she has her secrets. When it becomes clear that their adult children have no intention of resuming their participation, Caleb takes it as a personal betrayal.
What happens soon after leaves Baxter and Annie with even more unanswered questions as the film glides almost imperceptibly into melancholy contemplation, echoed in Carter Burwell‘s exquisite score. A key childhood recap of a Romeo and Juliet production from their school years shows the decisive moment in which the children began to take issue with their parents’ use of them as art projects, with little thought as to how the public exposure of those pranks made them feel. As specifically quirky as the Fang family unit is, there’s universality in the exploration of both the good and bad ways that children are shaped by their parents, and the struggle to retain what’s useful as they forge their individual identities.
The performances of the four leads could scarcely be better. Bateman is in unusually soulful mode and Kidman both flinty and vulnerable, those qualities meshing in lovely, relaxed fashion in their extensive scenes together. Plunkett brings tender grace notes to her role, while Walken’s affectless delivery and drill-like stare have not been this effectively used in years. Among the uniformly terrific supporting cast, Harris Yulin (like Plunkett, one of many New York stage actors involved) is memorable as the Fangs’ art school mentor and the pawn in one of their first major statement pieces.
Bateman’s handling of tone is exemplary, requiring constant modulation in a film that keeps moving back and forth in time, in unpredictable yet fluid new directions and into darker emotional waters. He has also surrounded himself with an accomplished craft team. Beth Mickle‘s production design and Amy Westcott‘s costumes have a nice lived-in quality, while the many video inserts provide a rough-edged contrast to cinematographer Ken Seng‘s classical compositions in the contemporary scenes.
For people who enjoyed Wilson’s book, this faithful adaptation will be a welcome reminder of its “beautiful spontaneity,” to quote from the Fang manifesto. And for those unfamiliar with it, the film will provide reasons to seek it out.
Production companies: Red Crown Productions, Olympus Pictures, Blossom Films, Aggregate Films, in association with West Madison Entertainment, Minerva Productions, QED International
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Jason Butler Harner, Kathryn Hahn, Harris Yulin, Linda Emond, Alexander Wentworth, Michael Chernus, Marin Ireland, Danny Burstein, Gabriel Ebert
Director: Jason Bateman
Screenwriter: David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the novel by Kevin Wilson
Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker, Nicole Kidman, Per Saari, Leslie Udrang, Dean Vanech, Jason Bateman, Jim Garavente
Executive producers: Daniel Crown, Matt Salloway, Christina Papagjika, Caroline Jaczko, Anne O’Shea, Martina Lisec, Anton Lessine
Director of photography: Ken Seng
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Costume designer: Amy Westcott
Music: Carter Burwell
Editor: Robert Frazen
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Sales: QED International, CAA
No rating, 105 minutes