Kevin Wilson’s 2011 eponymous novel was the stuff Wes Anderson movie adaptations wet dreams are made of: grown up, slightly messed up children of genius, egocentric artist parents are put through one final wringer in their quest to become their own people. Sound familiar? In the end, Jason Bateman chose The Family Fang as his directorial follow up to (the generally under-appreciated) Bad Words, and the final product is less of a art world whimsy than a fine and sometimes shocking balance of dark humor and pure darkness, anchored with even finer performances.
The story finds Baxter Fang and Annie Fang at a crossroads. Children of Caleb and Camille Fang, legendary performance artists who often used their children in their public displays of awe and casual macabre, they never really found a way to be themselves. Both now at that delicate mid-point of their lives, they don’t have a ton to show for their own place in the world, and the clock to leave a personal mark is ticking rapidly. In the end, maybe they just want to be normal for a minute. Then Caleb and Camille go missing, and while the police suspect foul play, Baxter and Annie are confident that this is all just part of another performance, and as the mystery unravels, so do the lives of everyone involved.
It would be unfair to reveal any more plot points (unless you’ve read the book, which I did and thoroughly enjoyed, but did feel took out a little bit of the final punch out of the movie’s bag of tricks). Instead, we’ll focus on why the movie DOES work. Bateman works with a fine script by David Lindsay-Abaire (of Rabbit Hole fame and acclaim), and builds a muted-to-dark atmosphere with the help of his previous Bad Words collaborator Ken Seng as the director of photography, as well as Carter Burwell’s effective score. But, much like with performance art, the key here is casting.
Bateman himself plays Baxter, and potentially brings some of his own old child star wounds to the table, resulting in a much more affecting showing for him than usual. Nicole Kidman, more fragile and less waxy than her typical self of late, plays Annie, and makes you believe through and through that this luminous, movie star creature is actually a half-failed actress with a career on the decline. In a stroke of menacing genius, Christopher Walken is mercurial and imposing as Caleb; Maryann Plunkett and Kathryn Hahn play Camille at later and earlier life stages, respectively, and do a great job of sharing what little Camille wants to share with the world in earnest. The way Bateman handles all these performances hints he’s truly actor’s director, and makes one look forward to what is next for him in that path.
The movie itself is a road trip, a mystery, and a family drama (Baxter and Camille have one of the better sibling on-screen dynamics since Skeleton Twins). Maybe it fails to some extent because it doesn’t quite commit to any of the very specific genres it is in, but those who love it will truly love it, flaws and all. Regardless, this is a great little weird gem of an addition to the pre-summer movie going schedule.