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Family Fang, The
The way parents and their children relate to each other over time is a strange thing. When the children are young, the parents are obvious authority figures who know exactly what they're doing at any given time. And the children, well, they're children. But when the kids gradually discover the oh so many joys of adulthood, and the sheer confusion and panic that accompanies it, they gradually come to the realization that their parents were going through the same neuroses as they are, rarely having a clue as to what they were doing in the first place.
On the other hand, the parents have to struggle with finally treating their offspring as adults, instead of aimless juvenile beings they're supposed to protect and guide. In a way, children have to be acknowledged as adults, while adults end up being exposed as not much more than lost children. Isn't this is the dichotomy that drives most of the conflict between elderly parents and their adult children?
Siblings Baxter (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Nicole Kidman) Fang have to deal with an especially dysfunctional version of that conflict, as children/living art installations for a kooky pair of parents who take their performance art to a dangerous level of obsession. Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) believe that any "static" form of art like painting and writing are for the dead, and think that the only viable form of artistic expression is one that happens in the moment. That's why they put together elaborate pranks that involve their children, in order to get people out of their comfort zones.
The first scene in The Family Fang, the sophomore directorial effort by Jason Bateman, shows Baxter pretending to rob a bank as a child and shooting his own father disguised as a security guard. The various pranks/art performed by the Fangs create some of the most amusing moments in the film, and the kids seem to have a great time, yet their fun value don't overshadow how destructive such an off-beat life could adversely affect them when they become adults. Alas, Baxter turns into a relatively unknown author with serious self-esteem issues, while Annie is a has-been actress desperate for any kind of attention. After Baxter is injured with a potato gun (Seriously), he ends up in the care of his estranged parents, and brings Annie in as moral support.
Worried that their art isn't as effective without the children, Caleb and Camille use Baxter and Annie's return as an excuse to put together more pranks. Yet they're severely disappointed when their adult offspring begin to act like, gasp, adults, and refuse to be part of their weird and quite juvenile art. After Caleb and Camille suddenly disappear with copious amounts of blood found inside their abandoned car, the police and Baxter think they might have been murdered, but Annie holds onto the belief that her parents are trying to pull off the ultimate prank, as punishment after their children wouldn't participate in their art. Annie pines for the remote possibility that they can be a normal family, while Baxter realizes that if they're willing to go this far, then they have made a decision between their children and their art, and regardless of whether or not they're still alive, their parents are long gone.
Jason Bateman's assured direction is a clear improvement over his first film, the misguided raunchy comedy Bad Words. It manages to succinctly infuse the aforementioned themes into a dysfunctional family indie that somehow manages to casually inject an engaging mystery into the story. However, I couldn't help but think that such an exuberant premise couldn't find more life in the hands of a more visually interesting director. Regardless of how fascinating the themes and content of the story are, the overall visual and narrative approach is a bit too straightforward and dry. Also, it's hard to buy Christopher Walken as a lively performance artist; his trademark dry delivery goes against the grain of the character's outrageousness.
The Family Fang is a drama with an overall dour look that utilizes a lot of muted colors, which also clashes with the lively subject matter. Even though the cinematography isn't anything special, a Blu-ray release would have complemented the film. It gets the job done in this SD state, without much video noise aside from some minor aliasing.
Since this is a dialogue-heavy drama, the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track is perfectly serviceable. There are occasions where the score takes over the surround channels, but this is a film that can be easily listened to through TV speakers.
Commentary by Jason Bateman: This is a breezy and informative commentary that fans of the film can tune in to.
Even though it's not very unique or exciting as far as the visual execution of this fascinating story is concerned, The Family Fang is a worthy and unique enough take on the dysfunctional family genre.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com