And you thought your family was messed up. At least that’s part of the message behind The Family Fang, the second directorial feature from Jason Bateman. The film is about a family of performance artists and covers their varied mishaps over the span of 40 years, as well as the long lasting scars that our parents can impose upon us – often inadvertently. Having reviewed the film earlier this year, it was interesting revisiting the work for its DVD release (it’s now available) because many of the film’s shortcomings are still there, but the ambition that Bateman puts into his adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s novel seems much more striking in its second viewing.
For his first feature, Bad Words, Bateman stayed within his comfort zone of pure comedy, punctuating the story of a middle aged man in a children’s spelling bee with a number of profane and colorful insults. For his second feature, Bateman really tries to tackle some complex themes and storytelling devices to tell this story of dysfunctional family of performance artists. The Family Fang carries itself with the same sardonic sense of humor as its protagonists, but with a sense of tragedy towards a past that cannot be recaptured.
Following their heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille Fang (Maryann Plunkett) have pretty much faded into obscurity, an oddity from the past only remembered by a select few. Their children Baxter (Bateman) and Annie (Nicole Kidman) have shunned their past, each struggling in their new fields as a writer and actress, respectively. Following an accident while writing a story, Baxter finds himself back at his parents’ house and is quickly accompanied by his sister, who is seeking a respite from the prying eyes of the tabloid press. Shortly after their arrival, Caleb and Camille disappear, their car discovered with blood spattered about. Baxter and Annie are wary of the official story that their parents may be the victims of a crime due to their prankster pasts. The siblings must reconcile their pasts while trying to figure out if their parents are trying another piece of performance art or if they are the victims of foul play.
The central question at the heart of The Family Fang is whether or not something terrible has happened to Caleb and Camille or if they’re pulling another prank. Either way, the characters are put into a dark scenario where any outcome is a tragedy in and of itself. And the reality is that it doesn’t matter if your parents were boing old suburbanites or outlandish performance artists, we carry with us (whether we want to or not) aspects of parents into our adult lives. Like Bateman’s landmark show Arrested Development, The Family Fang looks at familial dysfunction through the lens of absurdity, though the movie is certainly the more grounded of the two stories featuring deceitful parents.
One of the more interesting aspects of The Family Fang is the manner with which it examines the art world. There are no pretentious gallery owners or affluent art buyers. This is a movie solely focused on the artists. There’s an unwavering rigidity to how Caleb views art, one that leaves the character on the verge of a tyrannical view of creativity. He frowns upon paintings and drawings, thinking his way is the only way. As the world has changed and his art has fallen out of the public’s favor, Caleb is left as a lost and bitter soul unwilling to yield towards any other form of artistic expression. It’s a cautionary examination of a character that serve as a warning for unwavering rigidity in any aspect of life, be it politics, art, or parenthood.
The DVD of The Family Fang features an audio commentary track from Jason Bateman, where the actor, director, and producer takes us behind the scenes of his film. Bateman’s commentary is a frank discussion about the making of the film, sometimes admitting errors and other times providing little bits of trivia. One thing Bateman consistently does is heap mounds of praise to his cast and crew, though that is to be expected from anyone that isn’t an egomaniacal monster.
The Family Fang isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s one that shows Jason Bateman as a filmmaker willing to take big chances with his material. While it may not hit on everything it aims for, you have to respect the ambition of its filmmaker who shuns complacency. Bateman’s film plays with the audience in its manner of storytelling with flashbacks to the past in 16mm and cutaways into a documentary about the eponymous family, building to a tragic realization at its conclusion. If there’s one thing that Jason Bateman shows that he’s keenly aware of in The Family Fang, it’s that art and family aren’t always very pretty.
The Family Fang
An ambitious second feature from director, producer, and star Jason Bateman, The Family Fang is willing to explore complex themes with a sardonic sense of humor though it doesn’t always work as well as it should.