Film Review: The Family Fang

Highly original dark comedy about brain-dead performance artists and the lasting effect they’ve had on their adult children.
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Perhaps what’s most striking about Jason Bateman’s latest directorial-acting outing, The Family Fang (an evocative moniker for the title clan), is that it was made at all. Despite its obvious indie sensibility—its stars Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken and Bateman notwithstanding—this one, depicting the most marginalized of the marginal, is out-of-the-box original, and wonderfully so.

And while it offers some broad-stroked commentary on the long-term scarring impact parents have on their children—and implicitly raises the question of how adult progeny grapple with the past and move on—the audience for this dark comedy (which has some side-splittingly funny moments) is tiny. Most viewers have never encountered characters like these and will be puzzled at best; in all likelihood, they will simply be put off. But for those familiar with these “types,” this film is spot-on; even its heightened, sendup elements are profoundly truthful.

Based on Kevin Wilson’s entertaining 2011 best-selling debut novel and scripted by Broadway veteran David Lindsay-Abaire (whose film of his play Rabbit Hole also starred Kidman), The Family Fang zeroes in on emotionally damaged siblings Annie and Baxter Fang (Kidman and Bateman), a moderately successful movie actress and novelist, respectively. Annie suffers from heavy drinking bouts and periodic psychic meltdowns; indeed, both Baxters are given to self-destructive “high-risk” behavior.

Moving backwards and forward in time, the viewer learns that “A” and “B” (as their father dubbed them as kids) are the children of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang (Walken and Maryanne Plunkett), creators of the most bizarre and oftentimes cruel happenings. Among art-scholar pundits they are considered geniuses in the Dadaist tradition or, depending on viewpoint, pretentious nitwits. It seems clear they are the latter.

They are inarguably abusers, especially Caleb, who has exploited his children and to a lesser extent his wife for the sake of his creations, incorporating his family into his pieces. In one happening, “B” (Jack McCarthy), with toy gun in hand, holds up a bank teller, demanding lollipops. Caleb, playing a cop who has spied the child’s gun, starts shooting and “kills” an innocent bystander, played by Camille. Fake blood gushing from her body, “B” licks it up. Onlookers are shocked and horrified, not sure what to make of it, and Caleb is triumphant. For him the scene has been a rip-roaring success—true art—precisely because the unexpected has occurred and the public, forced out of its complacency, now experiences the world in a new way, he alleges.

As adults, neither Baxter nor Annie has any further relationship with Caleb or Camille, though they continue to be haunted by the imagery of their childhoods recounted and interspersed throughout the film in orange-hued 8mm and 16mm video clips. (Kudos to cinematographer Ken Sang and editor Robert Frazen).

They are also haunted by—and have never liberated themselves from—the defining psychobabble they grew up with: “owning the moment and controlling the chaos around you.” In one early retro-snippet, the family stands in a circle, holding hands, intoning those words as if in a trance.

Flash forward to the present: In her latest film, Annie is told she must appear topless onscreen. She is appalled but, determined to overcome her fear, moves into a meditative state, spewing forth her parents’ mantra, and within short order, her anxiety conquered, she struts onto the movie set, naked bust proudly displayed to the cast and crew’s gawking eyes. The episode ends up on the front pages of the tabloids.

At the same time, Baxter has taken a freelance magazine assignment to cover battle-fatigued war veterans in upstate New York who unwind by shooting potato guns at a given target. Like Sis, his psychic stamina is put to the test. The vets challenge him to play their dartboard: stand against a wall, can on his head, and allow them to shoot potatoes at the can. Baxter understands that if they miss their designated target and hit him, he can be seriously injured. But not wanting trepidation to limit his experiences, he too mutters the family’s refrain, does what he’s told, and ends up in the hospital, shot in the ear by a potato discharging gun.

Annie returns from southern California to upstate New York to nurse her brother. Each has decided to step back from their lives and take stock. They’ve also determined for reasons that are not entirely clear to reconnect with their estranged parents and move back to their childhood home (also in upstate New York), a cavernous, cluttered mess of a place.

Camille and Caleb are not welcoming. Life has deteriorated for them, and seeing their adult kids, whom they view as betrayers, doesn’t help. The fact is, in the wake of “A” and “B”’s desertion, their performances have lost their audiences, which Caleb attributes to the ubiquitous presence of YouTube, thus creating a culture where anyone can label himself a performance artist.

To make the family dynamic even more painful, Caleb is openly contemptuous towards his adult children. He brutally dismisses Annie as a commercial hack, a sellout, and when Baxter attempts to establish a bond with him as a fellow artist, Caleb charges him with knowing nothing about art and in no position to discuss it.

The Family Fang is not the first film to deal with disintegrating families headed by autocratic patriarchs whom the children (young and adult) try to please and placate (think The Squid and The Whale, The Royal Tenenbaums, even Shine). But this one is singularly different in its portrait of father as ersatz artist whose values and work are nonsense. Nonetheless, his power over his children remains no less potent. It may be even more controlling and insidious precisely because of his self-anointed mystique as artist—outsider artist, thus also making him a David in a David vs. Goliath tale—a role and image his kids have unwittingly bought into. Caleb is a far more treacherous figure than the traditional dictator dad who, whatever his shortcomings, may at least have accomplished something of value (however limited) in his own life.

The film takes an unexpected turn, morphing into a “mystery” when Camille and Caleb unceremoniously disappear and their car is found in the woods, covered in blood. Have the Fangs been murdered or is this yet another prank gussied up as cutting-edge theatre? In less skillful hands, the story would fall apart. But Bateman takes a potentially implausible narrative detour and makes it real. He also handles shifts in tone, mood and genre seamlessly.

Donning his actor’s hat, he is equally excellent playing Baxter, the sensitive, caring man who, despite wishing his family were otherwise, is able to come to terms with the reality; Kidman is also fine as the more delusional, less grounded sibling who cannot accept that her parents will never change. Annie and Baxter’s affectionate brother-sister relationship, with the shared association and memory that are inherent, is palpable.

Best known as a stage actress, Plunkett brings nuanced regret to Camille, a wife devoted to her husband and their “theatre,” yet simultaneously afraid of Caleb, on some level knowing his relationship with his children has been less than stellar. In a small role, Harris Yulin as Caleb’s mentor is terrific too, creating a delightfully smug, unctuous but wholly sincere art professor, especially funny as he ponderously recounts how his student Caleb, whom he initially viewed as talent-free, shot him with a bow and arrow, thus proving his vitality as an artist. A solid friendship emerged.

But the picture belongs to Walken, the arrogant and self-righteous performance artist who has no doubt that his ideas and work are significant. He is a great comic figure and horrifying nonetheless, even if at moments one feels his frustration, misdirected rage, and even a hint of self-loathing. His final confrontation with his adult children packs the emotional wallop, the necessary coda, and perhaps makes the film resonate even for those viewers who couldn’t be more far removed from the Fang universe. Responding to Annie and Baxter’s recriminations and charges, Caleb says, “You think we damaged you, so what? That’s what parents do!”

It’s a startling and thought-provoking statement, shedding a harsh light on the all-too-familiar self-pity of an overanalyzed generation. If ever there was a proclamation asserting “Get over it,” this is it. Still, the particular damage inflicted in this family is not universal by any means. It is specific to the Fangs.

The Family Fang debunks the conventional wisdom that the specific is the universal. It’s not. This film is a splendid testimonial to the specific.

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