Art, Parenting, and Narcissism Clash in Dubious 'Family Fang'

Directed by: Jason Bateman; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: C

The subjectivity and integrity of different forms of art has become a unique talking point in indie dramas as of late, from the nature of counterfeit works and performance role-reversals to the struggle to overcome physical ailments in creating one's artistic pursuits. In his second directorial feature, Jason Bateman utilizes the bizarre, slightly twisted nature of rebellious performance art as the cornerstone for family drama, one with dark undertones about raising children amid such an adventurous lifestyle and how it impacts the trustworthiness and bonds formed between them. The Family Fang presents nuanced, unique performances from director Bateman and Nicole Kidman as their characters discover whether their crazy theatrical parents have really died or staged their death in another stunt, and while the film initially touches upon intriguing musings about the validity of their art and the merits of their parenting approach, it gets too hung up on its concept to properly grasp the depth of their relationships.

Tightly adapting from the bestselling novel from Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang centers on a brother-sister duo, Annie and Baxter Fang, who grew up as the offspring of a renowned couple responsible for daring works of performance art. Their pieces range from cautiously disturbing musical numbers to outright violent displays in public venues, building to a body of work that earned mastermind Caleb Fang (Christopher Walken) and his partner in crime, Camille (Maryann Plunkett), a modest but sustainable cult following. Several decades have passed, and the children have grown into creative professionals of their own: Annie has become a celebrated actress, though her popularity and public persona have waned as of late, and Baxter ekes out a living as a novelist and freelance journalist. When their parents go missing, with a bloodied car left as evidence, the two Fang children are forced to confront the possibility that their disappearance might be either a murder or yet another elaborate hoax.

Jason Bateman directs The Family Fang into a slightly surreal, Charlie Kauffman-like tempo, cleverly keeping the bizarre upbringing and idiosyncratic personalities of the Fang children -- infantile behaviors, struggles with substance abuse, mistrust of their parents -- within the boundaries of realism. Tangled between "flashbacks" involving the performance pieces of their youth, which appear in gritty footage reminiscent of home movies, the film illustrates where these unusual public displays of art have changed their personality traits into the grown-ups they've become, both in their creative aspects and their jaded viewpoints of the normal world. These traits also give the leading actors slightly unique characters for Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman to embody: Annie's hesitation, petulance and lack of maturation find an acerbic home in Kidman, while the more subdued attitude of Baxter drains Bateman of most of his comedic-relief energy, skewing more pensive and melancholy. Annie's easily the more intriguing character of the two, but their chemistry results in a uniquely damaged pair of siblings.

It's understandable that the Fang children were affected by their youth considering the shocking, subversive nature of the performance pieces in which they were involved. These aren't the staged moral thought-exercises or closed-off artistic displays one sees on YouTube nowadays, but real, live situations that incorporate bank heists, murders, even the appearance of explosives next to an infant, crafted with a touch of authenticity by Bateman that's designed to leave the viewer unsettled whenever the story cuts away to them. The Family Fang works hard to make the validity of this dangerous creativity its central feature, even going so far as to stop and have a pair of art critics literally debate the deeper intentions of the Fangs' body of work, insisting that Caleb and Camille Fang are relevant enough to thrive off this artistry. Through this, and through the narcissistic viewpoint of Christopher Walken's abrasive Caleb, The Family Fang takes on a hostile tone toward subjectivity and the dedication to one's artform, deliberately intended to not be enjoyable because of how this contentiousness factors into Caleb Fang's persona.

The Family Fang hits the road and picks up the pace once Annie and Baxter confront the possibility that their parents' disappearance might be yet another entry into their performance-art portfolio, treated by the authorities as the next in a series of highway rest-stop murders. Lots of plain exposition -- helped by interviews taken from a documentary on the Fang family -- bluntly highlights the points throughout their childhood when they were most traumatized and how they've coped by maintaining a bond, and the enigmas of their parents' disappearance use that information to create a solemn mystery alongside how "A and B" could make sense of their parents' departure. Unfortunately, many of director Bateman's deeper intentions are undone by loose ends and questionable choices hinged on the notoriety of the Fang family itself, undermining points that the story emphasizes about the dedicated and consuming nature of performance art. In the end, The Family Fang resembles the family's stunts: well-performed and affective in the moment, but only without any scrutiny or follow-up on what'd happen next.

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