Jason Bateman deals with a very different kind of wacky family in his latest directorial outing.
We are all largely defined by the way in which we were raised. Our experiences—whether good or bad—growing up help shape our view of the world and those in it. What Jason Bateman’s The Family Fang ignores is that other things also influence who we are.
Bateman’s second outing as a director, following up on 2013’s Bad Words, Family Fang is based on the novel by Kevin Wilson and tells the story of Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman) Fang. They are the children of Caleb (Christopher Walken in the present, Jason Butler Harner in flashbacks) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett in the present, Kathryn Hahn in flashbacks). Now adults, Annie and Baxter do their best to avoid their parents, who are “performance artists.” For decades, Caleb and Camille have staged elaborate, filmed pranks – things like a pretend shooting in a bank or handing out fake coupons for a free chicken sandwich or having the kids sing a song about killing parents. The idea in no small part being to prompt a reaction from those watching the performance unfold.
There is obviously a question here about how art is defined and while The Family Fang addresses it to some extent, the film is much more interested in how Annie and Baxter were co-opted into being a part of these performances (described as improvised pubic events) and then tried to move beyond them. At one point, the siblings stopped wanting to be known as “Child A” and “Child B,” and forge their own identities.
Herein lies the biggest problem in the movie – they didn’t do that. Annie went off to be an actress, one known for her off-screen shenanigans as much as for her on-screen work. Baxter became a writer, and everything we hear about his writing makes it sound like a series of spins on, or outgrowth of, his childhood. Annie and Baxter didn’t escape their parents’ orbit. They may live far away, but everything they do, every characteristic or trait we see them exhibit in The Family Fang, is a direct result of their parents’ actions.
The movie brings the children, who don’t live near one another, back into close proximity to their parents after Baxter has a minor William Tell incident with a potato gun and a can of beer. Resentments creep up, complaints are lodged, and Camille and Caleb decide to go away for a few days. The two then disappear and the police believe that they may be the latest victims in a series of rest stop crimes.
The Family Fang, in fact, starts with the parents having disappeared and features a series of flashbacks to both the kids’ youth and to the incidents that led up to their vanishing. As we learn about Camille and Caleb, we wonder the same thing as Annie and Baxter – is the disappearance just one of their performance pieces or have they truly become the victims of an horrific crime?
At first a fascinating question, all too soon the answer becomes clear and the resolution itself is rather poor. By the time the truth is revealed and the credits roll, disappointment has more than set in.
In no small part, that disappointment stems from just how much The Family Fang does right. The different time periods and Fang performances we see are beautifully cringe-worthy. Kidman is wonderful as Annie, and Bateman engaging as Baxter. There is a beauty in the way that the younger versions of Caleb and Camille grow into the adult ones; it feels like a real, natural, transition. Snippets of a documentary on Caleb and Camille are interspersed throughout the movie and add more to the tale.
Like Annie and Baxter, however, it all just ends up as wheel-spinning, never growing, never changing. The two are characters presumably in their 40s, people who have had more decades living away from their parents rather than living with them, but are given no traits that aren’t derived from how they were raised by Caleb and Camille. It turns the movie into a frustration only exacerbated by the truly poor ending.