A few years ago with his directorial debut Bad Words, Jason Bateman played to his strengths as a comedic actor. He played a smart guy that used a deadpan delivery for his profane insults to any and everybody that crossed his path. Whether you loved Bad Words or thought it merely passable (as I did), it was obvious that Bateman wasn’t really challenging himself aside directing a feature for the first time. For his follow up, Bateman is seriously challenging himself with The Family Fang, a comedy-drama hybrid that centers round a family of prankster performance artists. While The Family Fang certainly is strong directorial effort from Bateman, it’s lacking in the laughs necessary to elevate the material.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s the eponymous Fang family gains notoriety for their outlandish pranks that blur the line between reality and art for those not in on the gag, all of which are videotaped in the name of art. The first such of these pranks that we witness has the family’s patriarch Caleb (played in his younger years by Jason Butler Harner) rigging himself with his hidden camera and dressing as a security guard at a bank. The young boy, Baxter, goes to the teller window and slides a handwritten note to the teller asking for all the lollipops, brandishing a firearm when the teller only hands over one. The boy then fires his pistol at the security guard. In the wake, a bloodied body lies on the floor. The average bank customers look in terror and shock at the bleeding person before them, only to be even more surprised when then woman starts laughing. It is the matriarch of the Fang family, Camille (played in youth by Kathryn Hahn). Bateman shoots these scenes with a lower grade film stock, the color desaturated and the images grainy like a ‘70s film stock. There’ll be a few more outlandish scenes like these throughout The Family Fang, though not enough salvage the rather rote family drama that is to follow.
In the present, the two children of Caleb and Camille have distanced themselves from their prankster parents. Annie (Nicole Kidman) is an actress that is frequently found in the back pages of various tabloid rags, whether for her problems with alcohol or onset antics. Meanwhile, Baxter (Bateman) is a struggling writer. He’s written two books, one acclaimed and one divisive, and is stuck at an impasse in finishing his latest. On assignment for a bit of cash writing a story about potato guns, Baxter is shot in the ear doing a bit of potato-based William Tell. Unable to fly, Baxter is set to be picked up by his parents, a revelation that leaves him with revulsion. As a sign of solidarity, Annie agrees to meet Baxter at their parents’ home in upstate New York. While the children have moved on from their past as performance artists, Caleb and Camille (played in older age by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) desperately wants to relive the past with a whole new set of pranks, though none of them have their intended impact. Things soon take a turn for the stranger when Caleb and Camille go missing after a planned trip away. Of course, Baxter and Annie have suspicions that this may be another piece of performance art, but the police having found some of their blood at the scene suggests that they may have been the victims of foul play. Either way, it ain’t pretty.
The Family Fang sees Bateman really reaching to handle complex themes of parenting and questioning the nature of art, only to find that they’re just out of reach. Bateman does play with the viewer as well, employing a number of intriguing flashbacks of the Fangs’ pranks to mirror the events unfolding. But ultimately The Family Fang becomes a rather stale drama, one that is buoyed by the flashbacks of bizarre pranks. Unfortunately, these flashbacks are pretty much the only humor that can be found in The Family Fang. It’s incredibly odd how the film bases its premise on such a humorous foundation, only to completely turn its back on humor as the film delves into the larger complexities of its story.
In adapting the novel by Kevin Wilson, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire renders the story to one of how parents screw up their children, even eccentric arty types. The problem is that when the movie becomes a mystery, it loses track of the parts that were working. For everything that Bateman and company get right, there’s just another aspect of The Family Fang that seems to have been lost in the transition onto the screen.
While not a bad movie, The Family Fang fails to live up to its own potential. What starts out as a wildly inventive movie eventually descends into a familiar family drama. Certainly well-acted and featuring some striking cinematography, it’s fun to see Jason Bateman take some serious leaps as a filmmaker. For all his noticeable improvements, Bateman attempts to buy off a bit more than he can chew with a story that might be too dense thematically to fit into a movie that runs under two hours. Falling short of an ambitious goal isn’t anything to shrug at, though. The Family Fang may miss the mark for the most part, but there’s enough going on here that I’m definitely interested in whatever Jason Bateman is directing next.
- The Family Fang
Jason Bateman’s second directorial effort is more assured than his previous work, but fails to live up to its incredible promise.