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Review: Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken bring bite to their roles in ‘The Family Fang’

Nicole Kidman as Annie Fang and Jason Bateman as Baxter Fang in the movie “The Family Fang.”
Nicole Kidman as Annie Fang and Jason Bateman as Baxter Fang in the movie “The Family Fang.”
(Starz Digital)

Based on the popular 2011 novel of the same name by Kevin Wilson, “The Family Fang” has been adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Jason Bateman, claiming its own surprising territory with a tone that is by turns darkly comic and bleakly morose. The story grapples with the traumas that parents unconsciously inflict on their children and the struggles for children to move beyond the failings of their parents. It’s heavy stuff, served with a light touch.

In the film, Bateman stars as Baxter Fang who, with his sister Annie (Nicole Kidman), took part as children in their parents’ performance art projects that mostly found them making awkward public spectacles of themselves. Baxter has grown to be a struggling novelist and half-hearted magazine journalist; Annie has become an actress of moderate acclaim seemingly already on the downslope of her career. 

When their parents Caleb and Camille (Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett) go missing after apparently being abducted from a highway rest stop, Baxter and Annie are left to wonder if this is another art project hoax. Real or not, in their parents’ absence, brother and sister must finally face the aftermath of their unusual childhoods and find a way out of their respective ruts.

Bateman’s previous feature as director and star, 2013’s “Bad Words,” was a more straightforward comedy, albeit one rife with a dry, acerbic sensibility. He adapts himself well to the dramatic elements of “The Family Fang,” navigating the emotional undercurrents that keep the film from becoming the irksome quirk-fest it might be in different hands.

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Perhaps by connecting to his own experiences as a child actor, there’s a weight to Bateman’s performance here that feels new, distinct from the affably put-upon everyman persona of his more mainstream commercial work or even TV’s “Arrested Development.”

Bateman the director even manages to get something different from Christopher Walken as the cruelly oblivious patriarch of the Fang family. The hint of menace that gilds even Walken’s sunniest performances is here allowed to infect the character like a stain. He believes in what he did in the name of art and doesn’t mind whatever damage he may have caused around him, while his wife and kids seem more circumspect.

Kidman remains a riveting screen presence, capable of portraying deep internal conflicts with a placid opacity. Just as one wonders about Bateman’s personal connection to his character, watching Kidman tangle in a scene with a pushy film director who suddenly wants Annie to do a topless scene or listen to another woman scold her for her behavior, it’s hard not to wonder if she is tapping into the sense memory of disappointment and anger she may have felt in similar situations.

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The story touches on the dynamic of the Fang parents just enough to give a sense of their own strains and complications apart from their kids. Maryann Plunkett conveys just the right amount of worn patience as his wife and artistic partner Camille, while Kathryn Hahn plays a younger Camille in flashbacks.

Overall the film feels more carefully crafted than “Bad Words,” with Bateman again working with cinematographer Ken Seng to create a lived-in look of muted, autumnal colors. Composer Carter Burwell, a recent Oscar nominee for “Carol,” turns in another deeply evocative score.

For a project that is a showcase for his talents as both actor and director, Bateman never gets too showy on either front, keeping the emotions of the film at something of a restrained simmer. “The Family Fang” builds to a quiet power in its final moments of reconciliation, giving Annie and Baxter at last a new future from the remains of their past.

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“The Family Fang.”

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Rated: R for some language. In limited release.

 

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