Family Fang: Family film has sting in the tale

December 2, 2016


The Family Fang (M)

Rating: 3 / 5 


‘If you have kids you’re going to damage them. That’s what parents do, so what?’ This is shocking enough when dropped into normal conversation, but it has an extra bite when uttered by Caleb (Christopher Walken) to his obviously damaged grown-up children Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Jason Bateman).

Brilliant, mercurial and self-absorbed, Caleb is a typical artiste. Many years ago he and his wife Camille (Maryann Plunkett) began incorporating their children (who they dubbed ‘A’ and ‘B’) into their avant- garde installations, such as staging a bank robbery so real that bystanders were left shell-shocked, and a family portrait in which they sported a bloody smile (thanks to fake blood capsules). 

But while art critics argued among themselves—‘Is it art or is it a joke? Is it profound or is it a prank?’—the world moved on, and A and B grew up, and moved far away from their parents. 

When we meet them, Annie is a moderately successful actress struggling with identity issues and Baxter, a writer, is dealing with writer’s block after the success of his first book.

When Baxter lands in hospital following an injury sustained during a reckless freelance writing gig, the hospital contacts his estranged parents and Baxter, in turn, pleads with Annie to come and rescue him.   

While their parents are clearly excited to see them and start dreaming up new Fang Family events, neither Annie nor Baxter is keen for a repeat performance. So when Caleb and Camille go missing and there are signs of foul play (this time the blood’s real), Baxter and Annie can’t decide if this is another performance or 
if they’ve actually been murdered.

Directed by Jason Bateman and adapted from Kevin Wilson’s novel by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, The Family Fang is a slow-burning drama-cum-thriller that almost succeeds in both areas. 

All performances are uniformly good. Walken and Plunkett are well matched, with the former once again nailing the mad genius role (he could probably do it in his sleep), while Plunkett, in a quieter role, gives a wonderfully understated performance as a woman torn between her children and her husband. 

Kidman and Bateman imbue their characters with all manner of sibling idiosyncrasies. There is real chemistry and pathos between them.

This is a film that asks a few important questions. While art is important to society, is it always more important than the individual? Also, while both Annie and Baxter have managed to carve out successful careers in their own right, partially thanks to their parents’ artistic background, how far is too far when you use your children to realise your own artistic vision?

While Bateman could have pushed the absurdist comedy a little further, his direction is satisfyingly moody and intimate, which edges our sympathies firmly towards Annie and Baxter. As Baxter says to Annie: ‘We can’t fix them. We can only fix ourselves.’ It’s one hopeful refrain that we can all take comfort from. 

Highlight: Carter Burwell’s soundtrack

Red flags: Some coarse language, adult themes


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