Jason Bateman has been acting professionally since he was 11 years old. Before they were even old enough to vote, Bateman and his sister Justine were supporting their parents with their acting careers. Bateman’s surreal upbringing, having been thrust into a life of performance at a very young age, clearly informs his second directorial effort, “The Family Fang,” which finds surprising pathos in a loony premise about a family of anarchic performance artists.
As kids, Baxter (Bateman) and Annie (Nicole Kidman) were conscripted into their mother (Maryann Plunkett) and father’s (Christopher Walken) bizarre performance art pieces, psuedo-Situationist “happenings” designed to manufacture chaos in public spaces. Really freak out the squares. Many of these performances, such as a fake bank robbery and a cross-dressing beauty pageant entry, don’t seem terribly inventive, though a high school performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” which the parents Fang manipulate in order to force Baxter and Annie to kiss, is pleasantly perverse. Baxter and Annie, now adults, have been scarred by their upbringing and are estranged from their parents until an accident brings them together. No sooner have they reunited than the parents have gone missing, an apparent homicide, but Annie isn’t convinced, and the siblings set out to uncover their parents’ fate.
While this material could easily be played for wacky comedy or maybe transgressive grittiness, Bateman opts instead for character-driven dramedy. He takes this premise, loopy as it is, on its own terms, dutifully, if not always imaginatively, teasing out its themes of fame, family, and art. It is a comedy of a very particular sort, the kind where nothing seems all that funny unless you step back from it. The Fangs are funny, unless you happen to be one of them, in which case it’s all simply tragic.
The cast sells that tricky emotional dynamic. Walken in particular credibly conveys a man so committed to his art that he would enlist his own children in crazy and potentially dangerous performances without any compunction. And not only that, but he is actively disappointed when they grow up and sell out, Baxter writing “emo” fiction and Annie acting in junky rom-coms.
The biggest problem here is that the central narrative is deceptively thin. There just not a whole lot to the film’s central investigation, and everything gets tied up much too tidily. I find the vast majority of movies to be overplotted, but “The Family Fang” is the rare film that could have benefited from an additional plot twist or two. Instead, the screenplay, adapted from Kevin Wilson’s novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, tends to meander, losing focus every twenty minutes or so until a new plot point snaps it back into place. In place of narrative, the film is filled with ambling discussions of the film’s big themes. But nothing much is said, and little is really explored. It’s easy to see why Bateman was attracted to this material, and he clearly connects with the Baxter and Annie, but that never quite translates into a fully-formed statement.