The Family Fang full movie review - Way to plant, Jason
Opening titles. Jason Bateman stands in a farm field, looking wary and bemused. He cringes, as he is shot in the face, in slow motion, by a potato gun.
Now - raise your hand if you'd expect this to be accompanied by a freeze-frame, dinging sound effect, and dry Ron Howard narration quipping "Baxter Fang was having a bad day."* Yeah; me too. Sadly, The Family Fang, Bateman (doubling as director)'s adaptation of Kevin Wilson's ode to the emotional alienation of a dysfunctional family unable to extricate life from pretentious, avant garde performance art, has nothing so unconventional on its mind. Instead, it's an unrelentingly somber affair, lacking the playfulness and dark comedy of Wilson's novel, in favour of a wholly dour take on the destructiveness of art.
Sure, any story of a family imploding is inherently melancholic, but eradicated are the sardonic moments of deadpan wry humour amidst calamity that Bateman, of all people, should consider second nature after his tenure with the Family Bluth. Instead, the entirety of The Family Fang is tinged with a greyish, 'rainy day' filter and accompanied by an austere tinkling piano, as if playing up their farcical performance art misadventures as high tragedy. Unfortunately, this austerity backfires, and, where the riffs of levity should help accentuate the emotional weight of the story, the incessant heaviness instead makes it all seem? well, a bit funny.
This isn't to say The Family Fang is an overall poor film ? it's capably written and shot, well-paced, including a couple of well-orchestrated twists along the way as the film flirts with the murder mystery genre in its second act, and a good bit with a crossbow. The Fangs' artistic incursions/chaotic guerilla public disturbances are fun, albeit a touch toothless (get it). Similarly, Bateman allows scenes to play with a relaxed naturalism that helps the cast sell some of their more constructed dialogue. It's just all so utterly joyless that even sequences with the sort of exquisitely cringeworthy setups that should play as uncomfortable comedy gold are simply a slog to trudge through. Even intercut sequences of pretentiously superfluous art critic banter critiquing the integrity of the Fang's work simply play as sullen rather than playfully scathing. And it's pretty clear that when Walken's Caleb Fang relentlessly pontificates on 'great art should make you feel things,' glum and restless was not what he had in mind.
As the two children desperately trying to siphon through their baggage to carve out their own artistic careers (and functional lives) amidst their parents' warped shadows, Nicole Kidman and Bateman himself do give strong performances, Kidman's peppery indignation making a good foil against Bateman's timidly sarcastic resignation. Similarly, no one could be perfectly cast as the kooky but emotionally abusive Caleb Fang than Christopher Walken, but he's used so sparingly, and plays so caustically bitter the whole time, that his weirdness is too acidic to enjoy. Maryann Plunkett does bring a credible goofiness and impressively nuanced subtle sadness to his eccentric wife. Still, it's a shame, given the comedic potential of all involved, that Bateman sets the dial so firmly to melodrama, as, try as they might, the cast can't help but feel fairly wasted.
There's a certain twisted irony in such a drably conventional take on pretentious artistic posturing that it's tempting to give Bateman the benefit of the doubt of pulling audiences' legs with a meta-critique. Still, even the most generously reflexive audiences will likely be too bummed out by the time the credits roll to properly navigate the onion skins of irony to care. It's a shame, as The Family Fang, on paper, has every facet of a worthwhile film in place - a valid lampooning of the boundaries, subjectivity, and value of art, as well as a sterling cast selling a more familiar retreading of how gosh-darn broken families can get. Still, it's inescapable: the film, beyond its capable moments, is obvious, emotionally forced, and resoundingly refuses to play with the boundaries of its art form. In short: it's everything the Fangs would despise. And this time, they may be on to something.
*Oh COME on - clearly Bateman had Arrested Development on the brain enough to rebrand his character from the novel's Buster. Just sayin'.