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With: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Harris Yulin, Linda Emond, Alexandra Wentworth, Michael Chernus, Marin Ireland, Danny Burstein, Gabriel Ebert, Scott Shepherd, Steve Witting
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire, based on a novel by Kevin Wilson
Directed by: Jason Bateman
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Running Time: 105
Date: 05/06/2016

The Family Fang (2016)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Performance Smart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Laced with subtle performances and rich characters, Jason Bateman's The Family Fang is a big improvement over his last movie, the overly cynical-but-cute Bad Words. Adapted from a novel (and feeling very much like an adaptation of a novel), it focuses on the titular family. In the 1970s and 1980s, two parents, a son and daughter, acted in real-life "performance art" pieces designed to push the boundaries of what's acceptable in public, i.e. a child committing a bank robbery, or orphaned children singing bad punk-rock songs in the park.

In the present day, Annie Fang (Nicole Kidman) is a famous movie actress, notable for her tabloid-headline behavior. Baxter Fang (Bateman) is a writer, having published a successful debut and a not-so-successful sophomore effort, and is now struggling over his third book. They are both emotional wrecks, barely surviving. After an accident, a hospital contacts the parents, and Annie and Baxter find themselves at home once more. Their parents, Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett), are still performing, but their acts are no longer quite so shocking or effective.

Following an argument, Caleb and Camille decide to go away, alone, leaving Annie and Baxter in the house. Word comes that their car has been found, and that they may have been abducted, or perhaps even killed. Is it real, or another one of their acts? This is a horrendously messed-up childhood, and Bateman draws keenly-observed, detailed performances from the four leads. Each of them has been wounded in some way, and each of them has given something up. Annie and Baxter have a peculiar relationship, which seems to stem from a performance of Romeo & Juliet at school, complete with a passionate on-stage kiss. Walken, especially, is frightening when he selfishly rationalizes his behaviors, never once realizing how awful they are.

The director also uses flashbacks both creatively and clumsily. He starts off, for some reason, with a flash-forward to an event from about 2/3 of the way through the story, as if he couldn't think of any other exciting way to kick things off. The "performance art" pieces are tricky and funny, however, and bits and pieces of the puzzle come together through these scenes. And, even though The Family Fang feels more like a novel than a screenplay, a bit reverent, Bateman still does a very fine job of translating it into something visual. Ultimately, however, it feels like it could have risked a bit more, perhaps with some dark laughs (Bateman could have used his natural gift for those). But what's here is at least true to its characters, and it has a welcome emotional resonance.

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