The Family Fang

Year: 2016
Production Co: Aggregate Films
Director: Jason Bateman
Writer: Kevin Wilson/David Lindsay-Abaire
Cast: Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken, Kathryn Hahn

Jason Bateman is shaping up as a director of very different films from the kind we see him in as an actor, and The Family Fang is another entry into an increasingly interesting directorial resume.

His last film Bad Words was similarly deep but marketed more as a comedy, making use of the kind of dry, acerbic delivery Bateman specialises in. With The Family Fang it's as if both he and marketing have gained more confidence because of Bad Words' success and gone all in, not relying on just gags or jokes to sell itself.

He plays Baxter, a guy floating and lost through life as a writer and reporter – unable to finish anything and landing in hospital when a story he's working on goes horribly wrong. His actress sister Annie (Nicole Kidman) is similarly without direction or certainty, her career going nowhere fast and wondering where it all went wrong.

Although neither has thought about it in a long time, they both subconsciously think it was their parents' upbringing that made them veer off course into broken adulthoods. As depicted in the introductory scenes, their folks Caleb and Camille were performance artists, staging dramatic and absurdist public displays designed to shake onlookers out of their bourgeois funk, a career that gained them high acclaim in art circles.

But Baxter and Annie just want to get on with their lives and escape the toxic influence of parents they've long since fallen out with because of their hijinks. Despite both their reluctance, Annie needs time off and Baxter needs to recuperate from being shot in the head with a potato gun (just one of the asides of the script that makes the whole movie a kind of performance art itself).

They go back home to stay with their now elderly folks (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) and it isn't long before sparks fly. But before the film settles into the same sort of discord-in-a-strange family we've seen lately – even by Walken himself in the recent One More Time – the unexpected happens when the elder Fangs disappear.

When their car is discovered in a truck stop with blood on the seats and signs of a struggle the cops treat it as a very suspicious missing persons case, but Baster and Annie know better – this is just one more of their parents' stunts. Baxter wants to leave well enough alone and be done with their folks' emotionally destructive presence in both of their lives but Annie wants to get to the bottom of the mystery, figure out their angle and find them.

In doing so, both brother and sister might figure out not just who their parents really are but who they themselves need to be – although that's a cheesy sounding set-up for a film that's actually very successful in doing so.

It looks and feels like a dramedy and with Bateman on board you expect it to be one, perhaps in the vein of This Is Where I Leave You, which was heartfelt but still had plenty of trailer-worthy gags.

But after awhile you realise not only that it's not really that funny, but it's okay how it is and doesn't need to be. When you're expecting a gag – even a sophisticated one – Bateman keeps the tone sombre and dark. The darkness also extends to the visual language of the film, the physical broodiness making it feel all the more like a Sundance-flavoured dramatic comedy, even though it's actually something far more.

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