The problem with artistic pursuit is that the ethics around the creation of art are dubious at the best of times. The intention behind the work may have honourable integrity, but its creation can often provide excuses for artists to cross the line, taking actions which are morally reprehensible and causing damage to others. This is the subject of ‘The Family Fang’, actor Jason Bateman’s second film as director that not only tackles the habits of art but the integrity of family.
Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter Fang (Jason Bateman) are the children of acclaimed performance artists Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett). As children, they were used extensively in their parents’ work, and as a result have grown into adults full of anxiety and repression. However, when their parents disappear under mysterious circumstances, Annie and Baxter are offered the chance to reconcile their relationship with their past and deal with their unconventional family once and for all.
Bateman has chosen a ripper piece of material, based on the book by Kevin Wilson and adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Its quirky tone could have resulted in the kind of twee comedy-dramas that independent American cinema churns out en masse every year for the film circuit, but Bateman and Lindsay-Abaire keep a tight focus on the dark undercurrent of the film, a criticism of the idea of art as an excuse for misbehaviour. The humour is pitch black and the criticism is biting, but it’s always balanced with the human drama - in this case the relationship between Annie and Baxter, siblings who have become each others' lifeboats out of necessity when their childhoods are essentially stolen away from them by their parents.
The transition from actor to director is always a tricky one to navigate, but Bateman does so with enormous confidence and endless imagination, so much so that it’s hard to believe this is only his second film. The texture and tone of the film feels organic and familiar, approached in a similar style of great American classics from the 70s like ‘Harold and Maude’. There’s a definite sense of looking back with Bateman’s approach, but he does this understanding the philosophies of that era and style of film rather than using it as a curiosity or gimmick. They were films focused on unusual characters within the parameters of an ordinary America and how they navigate that tension, and ‘The Family Fang’ certainly does just that. Ken Seng’s dusty cinematography pervades the film with a sense of immediacy and action, and Robert Franzen’s superb editing finds new ways to move between time periods and juxtapose contrasting moments and images. What really caps the film off though is Carter Burwell’s brilliant score, one that keeps the film on the knife's edge between comedy and tragedy, order and chaos. Mostly though, I was just so genuinely impressed by Bateman’s skill and clarity of voice. There’s a definite sense with this film of a director with a clear goal in mind and the audacity to play and experiment. If this screenplay had fallen into less able hands (regardless of its own skill), I suspect we wouldn’t have a film this interesting or affecting.
The transition from actor to director is always a tricky one to navigate, but Bateman does so with enormous confidence and endless imagination, so much so that it’s hard to believe this is only his second film.
It also helps that the ensemble he assembles is top-notch. Baxter is a character safety within Bateman’s wheelhouse, but this isn’t a negative when he does it so well, and the advantage in also being the director in this case is that he can easily adapt this familiarity to suit the tone of the film he’s creating. Nicole Kidman knocks it out of the park as Annie, managing to be both incredibly neurotic and narcissistic and utterly charming all at once. I love watching Kidman on screen and really love seeing her play with material like this, and she’s a dream in this film. The sibling chemistry is palpable between Kidman and Bateman, totally believable and vital to the integrity of the film. The same can be said of the paring of Walken and Plunkett, who are clearly having a ball bouncing off one another and yet manage to stand out in their own right. Caleb is a complex monster of a man, full of conviction and passion but at the cost of his humanity, and Walken tackles this beautifully, offering a powerful reminder of how skilled an actor he is. The heart of the film though is Plunkett, the quietly tragic victim in this whole mess of a family. Her grasp on her performance is the most assured and articulate, and in the same way Bateman and Lindsay-Abaire keep the subtext bubbling menacingly under the surface, Plunkett keeps Camille’s pain subtle but ever-present.
‘The Family Fang’ is an absolute gem of a film, once that manages to be both tremendously entertaining and artistically thrilling. It offers a much-needed commentary on the contradictions and problems inherent in that complex word "art", especially when it comes at the cost of those you love. There’s a tremendous amount of life and humour and play in this film, bolstered by intelligent direction, technical imagination and terrific performances, but it does all of this with razor-sharp wit and black humour. This is a beautiful piece of American independent cinema, and one you should track down without delay.