The Family Fang is a drag.
The term “dramedy” is best avoided. Like “rom-com” or “Brangelina,” it’s a media-invented portmanteau that’s not unlike vomit in word form. If not vomit, then at least a foul smell, and certainly not something you’d want to spend 105 minutes viewing. The likable “Arrested Development” alum Jason Bateman directs and stars in The Family Fang, a regrettable dramedy that also involves—you guessed it—a dysfunctional family. It’s a combination rife with cliché potential. It doesn’t help that Bateman’s leading family is white, hyper-privileged and utterly unaware of that privilege. While not every film has to involve race, class or sexuality, it nevertheless wears on the sense to see yet another family drama with no interest in looking beyond its rich, white and narcissistic stars. The always glowing Nicole Kidman makes an appearance and the film tries to engage with some art world concepts, but ultimately, The Family Fang is a drag. It relies on tired lines to say nothing new about our world or the people in it.
Baxter (Bateman) is a writer struggling to finish a novel and getting by on magazine articles. While covering a story about potato guns on a remote farm, he gets shot in the ear and can’t fly anywhere until it heals. When the nurse informs him that his parents are on their way to take care of him, he panics. He calls his celebrity-actress sister Annie (Nicole Kidman) for help. She flies out to serve as a buffer and they conspire like kids, still hung up on unspecified childhood trauma. Whoever these grown adults are, they have serious baggage with their elders.
When those elders finally show up, we’re confronted with the core dilemma of Family Fang. Caleb and Camille Fang, as played by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett, aren’t that bad. The real issue with Baxter and Annie seems to be a relentless case of navel-gazing that’s simply not that interesting to watch. Annie is trying to revive her career as a film actress but most of the time she seems either disinterested or heavily medicated. In addition to struggling with his writing, Baxter is a recovering addict and he’s taken on a somewhat holier-than-thou pose. He claims not to know what he’s doing but then he waxes poetic about his parents and how “we can’t fix them. We can only fix ourselves.” The movie’s not even halfway over and he’s already sharing the final lesson.
What makes Fang at least mildly interesting is the fact that Camille and Caleb are performance artists. They’ve made a career of “improvised public events” that incorporated Baxter and Annie as children. For one instance, kid Baxter went holds up a bank teller with a gun while Caleb, dressed as a cop, tries to bust him.
Camille plays an innocent bystander who gets shot as real bystanders flip out. According to Caleb, art is supposed to be big and brave and elicit strong reactions. When Baxter and Annie grew up, the Fang performances lost their luster, and an imperious and delusional Caleb tries to recapture the magic while his children are done with it. When they tell him to his face that he’s damaged their lives, he simply tells them, “That’s what parents do…So what?”
When Caleb and Camille suddenly go missing under suspicious circumstances, Baxter and Annie aren’t sure if it’s just another performance piece, but they go through the motions of the search. Bateman attempts a Wes Anderson-esque whimsy here, but one wishes he’d taken a lesson in aesthetic risk from Caleb and took bold steps to provoke the viewer. Instead, The Family Fang offers only trite lessons in family loyalty and forgiveness.
At one point, Caleb is compared to real-life performance artist Chris Burden, one of the most fascinating provocateurs of the 20th century. In one piece, he crawled, almost naked, over a field of broken glass. In another, he stuck his chest with live electrical wires. By the end of the ‘70s, however, he moved away from this style of body art. In a 1982 interview he said, “You can’t keep doing the same work over and over, otherwise it’s an act.” If only Hollywood could take the same lesson and stop making the same dramedy 100 times over.