Review: The Family Fang (2015)

The Family Fang

© Starz Digital Media

© Starz Digital Media

Two years ago, Jason Bateman transitioned from the realm of acting to the world behind the camera. He released his debut feature, Bad Words, to fairly positive reception and success. Bateman directed himself playing a character who had found a loophole into a children's national spelling bee, and through the course of the film, we begin to understand the past traumas that have caused this man to stage such a spectacle. I recall the film being shot in a dreary sort of manner, but it still managed to offer some fun and a few laughs here and there. Would Bateman's sophomore effort expand on his directorial vision?

The Family Fang follows Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter Fang (Jason Bateman), two siblings raised by a pair of infamous performance artists who constantly made them the center of their artistic pieces. As they two grow up, they start to see the affects that participating in these incredibly macabre visions has had on their respective psyches. Annie now struggles as an aging Hollywood starlet while Baxter fruitlessly attempts to complete his third novel. After Baxter has an accident that sends him to the hospital, he is sent to recover under the supervision of his parents Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett). Annie, needing a break from the limelight, elects to take time off and stay with them as well. When the two siblings refuse to join their parents in yet another artistic venture, the elders leave on an impromptu vacation only to soon be found missing in what looks to be a homicide. Annie and Baxter must then piece together the clues to determine whether their parents have actually been harmed or if they are simply trying to create one final elaborate hoax. 

If this movie succeeds in any way, it's that it shows us just what kind of directorial vision Jason Bateman wants to bring to the screen. So far, he has used his opportunities to attempt to bring some sense of comedy to two very dreary lifestyles, and while it mostly worked with Bad Words, it simply falls flat with The Family Fang. Bad Words had a charm about it that revolved around Bateman's on-screen chemistry with Rohan Chand, his child star counterpart. This new movie doesn't offer any real chemistry between any of the characters, and when the emotion of a film stems from the very way that the individuals affect and have affected one another, then a lack of chemistry can certainly spell doom for any venture. A very interesting and original story lies hidden within the confines of The Family Fang, but Bateman's near-solemn atmosphere doesn't allow for any comedic aspects of the situation to slip through the cracks. Instead, it simply feels like a step-by-step progression to a rather predictable conclusion. 

The characters themselves seem to be ripe with emotion and desire, but the actors simply are not given enough with which to flesh out these individuals fully. Bateman and Kidman are fine as our leads, but I never truly bought them as siblings nor did I feel as though they were ever truly invested in the situation presented to their characters. They play individuals frustrated with their down-on-their-luck livelihoods, and although they seemingly want to escape the struggles of their day-to-day, they approach it with a palpable boredom that oozes off the screen. Even the always stellar - if truly one-note - Walken can't manage an exemplary moment here or there; instead, his character is left stifled by the constructs of a character that leaves him as the broken-down shell of a once charismatic artist. If anyone manages to break the monotony, it's Kathryn Hahn and Jason Butler Harner, who portray the younger versions of Camille and Caleb in flashback sequences. In these moments, we get to see an off-kilter family with a true sense of life in their eyes as they attempt to create these profound artistic visions. I longed to stay with these younger versions of the characters rather than constantly be thrust back into the tiring lives of their older counterparts. Bateman may have been vying for that dichotomy, showing just how someone can lose the fire in their belly as time continues to pass, but it simply doesn't translate well for someone trying to ingest what the movie is trying to say. 

When all is said and done, The Family Fang ultimately commits a film's greatest cardinal sin: it's boring. Bateman takes a somewhat fascinating storyline and manages to bring it down into the depths of tedium by focusing on the emotions of the tired and aging versions of lively and fascinating characters. Give me a story about these four trying to create their greatest - and most dangerous - piece rather than letting me sit with the monotony of their whining as they grow older. Despite the best efforts from a cast of award winners, The Family Fang simply cannot pull itself out of the doldrums it sets for itself. Hopefully Bateman can bring a little more life to his next endeavor.