Performance art can be a contentious subject. How far are artists willing to go? Is it inherently wrong to involve your family with your work? Or is that the purest form of the craft? The Family Fang, the second film under actor/director Jason Bateman’s belt, deals with a family of four grappling with both sides of the debate.
Since childhood, the siblings Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman) have been coaxed into stunts, ranging from performing a startlingly dark song in Central Park to robbing a bank of their lollipops with a real gun. Their parents are world class virtuosi, ranked up with the Dadaists (the group that helped to propagate performance art as fine art trend in the early 20th century), but their method predictably causes a generational rift.
The family becomes estranged when Baxter is sent to the hospital for a potato cannon mishap. They are brought back together with the introduction of the film’s main conflict: the patriarch Caleb Fang (Christopher Walken) wants to further the family’s long-dormant involvement in increasingly daring ruses. The parents’ mysterious disappearance leads the children to investigate whether it is their greatest stunt or a violent crime.
The strong lead performances from Bateman and Kidman propel the gradual setup of the film, but it is a bit on the slow and dry side. The film depicts performance art with none of the gusto it deserves. They devote their lives to their art and yet they don’t seem impassioned by it. That’s a big issue of The Family Fang, because anyone who has seen an artist fully inhabiting a performance would see both passion and devotion present in full force.
Many of the jokes land flatly, and much of the depth reached in characterization feels obligatory. Of course Baxter writes books in the vein of coping with the sometimes dark capers of his youth. Of course Annie decides to push her acting abilities by performing as a character instead of as herself. It all leads back to the family. Every member of the domestic quartet has issues they must sort through, and by the end, each settles for a compromise.
The Family Fang is a rumination on how a family unit can adapt to support change, even if the change must be a radical one. By the end, the Fangs are an entirely different family and each seem to thrive in becoming a new form of themselves, although it is a bit melancholy. It speaks to the process and value of healing from previous events that resound to the present, but not to the value of family in regular life.
Bateman bookends the film with a mature speech in which Caleb explains the power of imagining ourselves as dead to his children. Once that is possible, there are no limits. Interesting in theory, but a pretty convenient manifesto considering the film’s third act.
Despite the content being a bit dreary and expected, there are technical flourishes with jump cuts, clever montages, and beautiful extreme-close ups. While it’s enjoyable as shallow entertainment, it doesn’t go much deeper than that. It doesn’t even remotely capture the poignancy and devotion of those that dedicate their lives to performance art, but it is designed as escapist fare with all its star power and mild-thriller nature.