Movies about families (especially famous ones) run the risk of being obnoxious. It’s a fine line between precocious and precious, best walked by Wes Anderson and his 2001 masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums, in which we watch a family’s glory days curdle into unfulfilled promise. The Fangs of actor Jason Bateman’s ambitious second directorial effort, The Family Fang, are no less huggable, but his movie—loosely adapted from Kevin Wilson’s 2011 novel—is more downbeat, raw and grown-up than Anderson’s hyperstylized one.
The four main characters, who we follow across golden-hued ’70s and ’80s flashbacks and grayish arguments in the present, are weird ones to anchor a movie—but go with it. Siblings Annie (Nicole Kidman, more relaxed than she’s been in years) and Baxter (Bateman) once were “Child A” and “Child B” in their parents’ performance-art videos, co-conspirators in bloody bank robbings and public stunts. Now Annie’s a failing Hollywood bad girl who’s asked to take her top off, while Baxter is an uneven novelist with only a few dollars to rub together.
An accident reunites them at the hospital with their parents, and when we meet crazy-haired Caleb (Christopher Walken, heartbreaking and direct for a change) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett), who greet their bandage-wrapped son with fake black eyes of their own, we quickly know them for the pranksters they are. But any notion that the band is getting back together is punctured by sour feelings, and when the parents disappear in a rest-stop “abduction” (that police are taking seriously), you wonder if it’s real or just another performance, this time motivated by disappointment in their children.
The Family Fang goes deep into dysfunction, but even more impressively, it smuggles in the daredevilish art theories of the late Chris Burden and his ilk: At one point, Walken abruptly smashes a glass and calls it art. It’s one of the most forceful bits of acting he’s done. Whether Caleb is persuasive (and the film includes plenty of counterarguments) is another story entirely, one that’s intelligent and laced with consequence.
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