We need more movies about dysfunctional families like we need more movies about the tortured inner lives of artists, which is all the more reason to be unexpectedly grateful for “The Family Fang,” a sharply drawn portrait of a dysfunctional, tortured artistic family that speaks affectingly to the troubled legacy that all parents inevitably bequeath to their children. Following his raucous and foul-mouthed directorial debut, “Bad Words,” Jason Bateman shows marked progress and deepening maturity as a filmmaker with this cleverly structured but never arch or mechanical adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s 2011 comic novel, with Bateman and Nicole Kidman nicely inhabiting one of the more tender and persuasive brother-sister relationships in recent movie memory. With its rich vein of melancholy and intricate but entirely accessible narrative layers, “Fang” will require shrewd distributor positioning to sink its teeth into the arthouse market; solid critical response and cast names should help.
By dint of its plot description alone, “The Family Fang” superficially recalls any number of past pictures about the toll of a monstrous father figure on his talented and sensitive children, including Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” Although more modest in its aims and achievements than those earlier touchstones, David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay (his strongest big-screen effort since “Rabbit Hole,” an earlier Kidman collaboration) boasts a fluid, easily enveloping style that takes a wisely understated approach to a premise that could otherwise have seemed brazenly artificial. Centering around a domestic upbringing that would seem extreme and out-there by even the loosest of parenting standards, the picture devotes itself to dramatizing its protagonists’ unique childhood in grounded and believable fashion.
Well into adulthood, but pointedly lacking any kids or long-term relationships of their own, Annie (Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman) are still trying to process the damage wrought by their parents, a pair of celebrated New York performance artists named Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille Fang (Maryann Plunket), who have mastered a brand of socially deviant, flash-mob-style public fakeout. We see many examples of their past work firsthand (in golden-hued re-creations and old video clips), including an early sequence of a phony bank robbery in which young Baxter plays stick-’em-up with a teller, father Caleb masquerades as a security guard, and mom Camille is the innocent bystander who gets gunned down, oozing candy blood while daughter Annie howls in agony, though she’s really trying not to laugh. (The younger versions of Caleb and Camille are played by Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn.)
What parents would do such a thing? The kind who see child rearing as just another way to realize their artistic ambitions to the fullest — and indeed, Caleb and Camille achieved the height of their recognition by the art world when they got their children in on the act (as discussed in a clip of two Artforum types played by Scott Shepherd and Steve Witting). And clearly, the kids either inherited or absorbed their parents’ creative impulses: Annie is now a well-known film actress, though she’s feeling restless and uncertain about the direction of her career, while Baxter has been trying to finish writing his third novel for the past two years. When a freelance magazine assignment goes awry and unexpectedly lands Baxter in the hospital (in a very funny, energetically cut sequence), the stage is set for an unplanned family reunion, and brother and sister brace themselves — and lean heavily on each other — in expectation of the worst.
While this all may sound on paper like just another dispatch from the ninth circle of indie-quirkfest hell, “The Family Fang” deepens and darkens as Caleb, Camille, Annie and Baxter come back together at the old homestead in upstate New York — a wonderfully lived-in repository of old memories and countless discarded art projects (courtesy of Beth Mickle’s production design), and filmed in shadowy, richly muted colors by d.p. Ken Seng. Bateman and Lindsay-Abaire modulate the tension carefully and with a merciful avoidance of histrionics, though after an uncomfortable dinner and several more awkward conversations, it’s plain to see that Dad is the monster of the group, whether he’s dismissing Annie’s career as basically “crap movies and a tampon commercial,” or knocking down Baxter’s attempt to relate to his father as a fellow artist: “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about.”
When Mom and Dad suddenly go missing under troubling circumstances, Annie is convinced that it’s merely the latest manipulative ruse devised by two people well versed in the art of deception. But Baxter isn’t so sure, and so brother and sister begin an investigation into the mystery of not just where their parents may have gone, but also who they are, how much they really care about their children, and whether the present state of their career — which declined after Annie and Baxter opted to withdraw permanently — might have driven them into hiding. All this is conveyed not merely through plot and dialogue, but through a highly cinematic weave of sound and image: Set to a delicate score by Carter Burwell (already having quite a year with “Carol” and “Anomalisa”), the film’s time-shuffling structure comes to mirror the very act of scanning one’s family history, searching for memories that will present our loved ones in the best or even worst possible light.
Working with editor Robert Franzen, Bateman ingeniously sprinkles clips of those old performance-art pieces (a mix of 8mm and 16mm formats) throughout the movie, and they prove wonderfully illuminating — not only holding clues to future narrative developments, but also giving us a frequently hilarious, sometimes piercingly sad glimpse of what it must have been like to grow up with these particular parents. As intensely specific as these circumstances may be, however, the film rarely feels inward-looking or self-involved. The message it has to impart (“They f–k you up, your mom and dad”) is a universal one. Even those of us who weren’t raised by socially deviant avant-gardists may come away from “The Family Fang” with a renewed appreciation that we are all to some extent at the mercy of those who brought us into the world — fully formed adults who had dreams and desires of their own well before children entered the picture.
Admirers of the Bateman oeuvre will pick up on more than a few echoes of “Arrested Development,” with its even more acerbic portrait of parents and siblings waging open war; the episodes in which the Bluth children are ambushed by one-armed stuntman J. Walter Weatherman come particularly to mind. (The “Arrested Development” connection may even explain why the name of Bateman’s character has been changed from Buster to Baxter.) Yet it’s a measure of Bateman’s skill in front of and behind the camera that his performance here betrays nary a shred of actorly indulgence, operating instead in a subdued register that achieves quietly aching moments in the final stretch.
He meshes beautifully with Kidman, who does some of her earthiest, most unaffected work in some time as a woman whose resentment of her parents is matched only by her protectiveness toward her little brother. (It’s a bit harder to buy Kidman as a B-list actress who has qualms about doing nudity, a plot point that’s dispensed with early on.) Together, the two leads achieve a wholly convincing sibling rapport that will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever seen their brother or sister as not just a friend but an ally.
The too-little-seen Plunkett is superb as a wife and mother who, for all their shared commitment to their art, has had to suppress or hide her own gifts for the sake of her husband’s happiness. To no one’s surprise, Walken steals scenes right and left as an eccentric, overbearing father whose every word and gesture makes clear that he sees people as secondary to performance, and that his own preferred style of live, unpredictable, in-the-moment performance art is the only form of creative expression still worth a damn in the era of YouTube. Everything else for him is “garbage,” which makes it rather fitting that his own movie winds up proving him wrong.