All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way… well, unless you’re an unhappy family in a movie, in which case you’re pretty much alike. Distant/absent parents. A dictatorial patriarch. A strange childhood whose psychological fallout takes decades to recognize, and that must be dealt with in adult life in order to finally self-actualize.
That common narrative of dysfunction, real or imagined, might be the biggest issue with The Family Fang. I couldn’t help but think of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Savages and countless other dysfunctional family narratives while watching the movie. There’s some missing ingredient in The Family Fang, a flavor of distinction I can’t quite name but can recognize when it’s absent.
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
The Family Fang
Director: Jason Bateman
Release Date: April 29, 2016 (limited); May 6, 2016 (wide, VOD)
Caleb and Camille Fang are a pair of performance artists who used their two children to stage happenings around town. In the opening scene, the Fangs enter a bank, stage a lollipop robbery, and then have a shootout. The fake blood is sweet. It’s an absurd flashback as seen through an Instagram filter, but it offers and idea of the Fang family’s artistic MO, which is the MO of most performance art: to disrupt the regular flow of life, to make others pay attention, to cause a scene, which itself is a singular artistic act.
Decades later, Annie Fang (Nicole Kidman) is a dysfunctional actress while her brother Buster (Jason Bateman, who also directed the film) is a dysfunctional writer. He suffers a potato gun injury while out on assignment, which makes the dysfunctional Fang parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) offer to drive their son home. The children want to live their adult lives, the parents want to force their children to make disruptive art. Dysfunction ensues. After a nasty fight, Caleb and Camille leave their children. Their car is found on the side of the road with evidence of a violent abduction, which leaves Annie and Buster wondering if this is just another art-prank of if their parents are really in danger.
There’s so much possibility with set-up and the cast, so perhaps the ultimate disappointment is that The Family Fang feels so toothless.
I haven’t read the Kevin Wilson’s acclaimed novel the film is based on, but I suspect there’s something lost between text and screen. Every now and then, Bateman cuts to a documentary about the Fang parents and the art they created. They’re important cult figures in the art world (think Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic), yet they’ve failed to create anything meaningful since their children left home. What’s more, their art has an ugly domineering aspect to it, and they’re oblivious to the ways they’ve hurt their children in selfish pursuit of their own interests.
Art has consequences, and I sense that kind of conversation is easier to explore in text rather than on film. Debate can be carried on in every line and with periodic asides, yet in the film version of The Family Fang, that idea seems to be explored only out of obligation to the theme rather than full interest.
There’s also a tidiness to The Family Fang that’s disappointingly pat. This is a story about people who are hurt and who hurt others because of it (themselves, most often), yet David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay keeps the edges of the characters clean rather than jagged and more complicated. The mystery element is compelling enough to follow the story to its end, but the film never fully inhabits moments that should be more painful and honest. Consequently there’s no catharsis or emotional release even though there are gestures made at both.
If unhappy families are supposed to be unhappy in their own way, it’s because of how richly the characters are rendered. In The Family Fang, I still felt like these were character types in a dysfunctional family movie rather than actual people dealing with a dysfunctional upbringing.
The Fang MO is to make others wake up, yet the Fangs themselves emotionally sleepwalk through this trying time in their lives. Which is a shame since Kidman seems engaged yet relaxed in her character, enough that her accent occasionally slips–I can accept that as an Annie Fang artistic affectation. Walken is also good as Caleb Fang, though he never gets a chance to really let go. Ditto Plunkett, who’s underused Camille Fang hints at a much deeper internal life than what shows up on screen. The same is true of Buster, the deadpan screw-up writer (all screw-up writers are alike, by the way).
You sense that the Fang family members are each on the verge of some breakthrough, but, like the film, it never comes in a satisfying way.