The Family Fang
Is art a finished product or a process? Can in-the-moment public responses to manufactured stimuli qualify as art, or are they merely manipulation disguised as entertainment? These are the heady questions asked in directed by Jason Bateman — from a screenplay by the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire — and based on Kevin Wilson’s 2011 novel. This is Bateman’s sophomore directing effort, after 2013’s
which wasn’t much different from the string of offbeat but lowbrow comedies he’s starred in since the 2006 network cancellation of Arrested Development.
The Family Fang is a dark, comedic drama about art, child abuse, addiction, and terrible decisions, but there is nothing cynical or ironic in Bateman’s approach. Another question the movie asks is how is one supposed to conquer the lasting effects of an esoterically abusive childhood — one that outsiders don’t understand. Caleb and Camille Fang are famous and respected performance artists; their children, Annie and Baxter, participated, often gleefully, in their parents’ creative pranks when they were young. Annie and Baxter were raised as Child A and Child B, the stars of Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille’s (Maryann Plunkett) guerrilla-style street theater, which they call fine art. Videos of their projects are included in galleries and museums, but Caleb believes the only real art is in the happening itself. The couple’s children were the ones who made his art successful, such as when little Baxter dressed as a girl to enter and win a youth beauty pageant. Caleb rushed the stage and revealed his son’s identity just as Baxter was awarded his tiara.
But once A and B got older and no longer took part in their parents’ machinations, Caleb and Camille slid into hack territory. When they disappear at a highway rest stop on their way to a vacation, Annie and Baxter, now in their forties, are torn between believing that their parents are in danger, as the police say, or that they are engaging in one last massive performance piece: faking their own deaths. As Baxter Fang, Bateman stretches his acting in a new, much more interesting direction. Baxter is damaged and wizened, a look of deep desperation in his eyes, struggling as a novelist with writer’s block. Annie, an actress on the down-slide of her career, is played effortlessly by Nicole Kidman, who takes on the role with relish, as if she’s been waiting for years to get back at someone for messing with her head one too many times. Their search for the truth forces them to look at the implications of being raised as art objects by exacting directors, and to ask whether their parents have ever been capable of loving them as people. — Jennifer Levin