“The Family Fang,” a new dramedy from director/actor Jason Bateman, focuses on Caleb and Camille, two famously divisive New York performance artists, and their children Baxter (Jack McCarthy) and Annie (Mackenzie Smith). Their most famous works used their children to prank unexpecting people for the sake of “art.” The kids pretend to be street performers as their parents heckle them, have to kiss during a performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” and pose for a bloody family portrait as performances. While Camille and Caleb are still famous artists, their art has suffered since Annie and Baxter left them.
“Can I taste the fake blood again,” asks Baxter as soon as the film starts. It’s the 1970s, and it looks like Bateman used the “toaster” filter from Instagram. We then see Caleb (Jason Butler Harner), dressed as a security guard, stop Baxter from stealing a bank teller’s lollipops while threatening to shoot her. They pretend to struggle and Camille (Kathryn Hahn) gets shot. Annie screams and cries that her mother is dead. Everyone in the bank is horrified until Baxter dips a finger into the pool of fake blood and tastes it, which makes all of the Fangs burst into laughter.
Adult Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Jason Bateman) have been both hurt and helped by their performance art pasts. Annie is a fading actress and alcoholic who can’t seem to keep out of the tabloids. Baxter is a pill-popping freelance journalist and novelist who had a successful debut novel, a horrible second one, and can’t seem to finish his third. While they’ve made careers out of what they learned as children (how to make stories up and act them out), their personal lives are in shambles.
When Baxter gets shot in the ear with a potato, launched by a cannon, while playing William Tell as he researches an article, he goes home to his parents. Annie decides to come too, and the family is together for the first time in years. You’d think this is another family dysfunction movie where they end up happy and united at the end, but it’s not. “The Family Fang” is much darker than that.
The Fangs try to rebuild their relationship until it all falls apart at a theme park. The parents try to make Annie and Baxter do another prank, like old times, but they refuse to hand out fake coupons for free sandwiches. The parents then have to do the prank, and Caleb implodes when it fails.
The older Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) know their art is worthless without their kids and keep trying, and failing, to suck them back into their art. Once they realize it’s not going to happen they say they’re going on a weekend trip, only to disappear for months. The police assume the Fang parents are dead, and Annie and Baxter have to figure out if this is just another cruel art piece or reality.
Jason Bateman’s sophomore directing effort is a strong movie thanks to its cast and simple direction. You can tell an actor directed the film because its focus is entirely on the performers. The story is told through glances, eyes slowly brimming with tears, and David Lindsay-Abaire’s razor sharp script.
Kidman’s Annie is vulnerable and wants to sever all ties to her parents, but she still holds a mixture of love and pity for them. She becomes obsessed with finding them because she feels like she’s being used by them again. Bateman’s Baxter is more indifferent and just wants to stay as far away from them as possible; he’s basically playing a less functional and sadder Michael Bluth. Their sibling bond is unbreakable, and they help make each other better. But Annie and Baxter are nowhere near as interesting as their parents.
Scene stealers Walken and Butler Harner play the self-obsessed Caleb with an unapologetic and manic fury. He refers to his children as Child A and B, attacks their careers, and constantly tells them that they ruined his career. “Children kill art,” he screams multiple times when asked why he used them for the performance pieces. Caleb doesn’t care about them, parenthood, or even Camille, he just cares about producing “art,” but doesn’t seem to notice that he is the least talented of the bunch.
Plunkett is heartbreaking as Camille, the most sympathetic Fang. She was a moderately successful artist (her paintings look like folk art and pop art had a baby) who gave up painting to keep Caleb from feeling threatened by her talent. Camille starts out as an eager follower of Caleb’s plans, but later realizes how much she’s hurt her children and herself by staying with Caleb. She regrets it, but knows it’s too late to fix it now.
That’s the strength of “The Family Fang.” The Fangs are horrible to each other, but can’t pull away because they’re a family, and even though Camille and Caleb are gone, their presence is still there, torturing their children. Despite its comical flashbacks, jokes, and quirky plot it’s a realistic and haunting drama about family ties. But sometimes being realistic means you don’t get a happy ending, you just get a glimmer of something better.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Photo courtesy of Starz Digital