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edge staff writer


The Family Fang' has bite

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Film explores familial dysfunction, artistic expression

The nature of art is such that it is notoriously difficult to precisely define. The question 'What is art?' is one that has been asked for generations and each generation has its own notion as to what the answer should be.

That nebulous and evolving answer is one of the foundational tenets of 'The Family Fang,' based on the novel of the same name by Kevin Wilson and adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire. Jason Bateman directs. It's a tale of the consequences of art and the domestic dysfunction that it can create.

Years ago, the Fang family executed and filmed elaborate public hoaxes that were viewed by some as performance art and others as mere pranks. Caleb and Camille Fang found their greatest artistic successes came when they involved their children Annie and Baxter (referred to as 'Child A' and 'Child B') as integral parts of their happenings.

This unconventional upbringing had an unsurprisingly detrimental impact on the emotional well-being of the Fang children after they reached adulthood. Annie (Nicole Kidman, 'Secret in Their Eyes') is an acclaimed indie actress who is struggling with a drinking problem and a reputation for being difficult. Meanwhile, Baxter (Jason Bateman, 'Zootopia') is a novelist whose well-received first book was followed by a less-than-stellar second effort; he's now stuck with some serious writer's block.

An absurd accident leads to the two Fang siblings back in the house of their parents. Caleb (Christopher Walken, 'The Jungle Book') sees this return as a chance to start creating once again, while Camille (Maryann Plunkett, 'True Story') is mostly just happy to have her kids back in her life.

But when Caleb and Camille disappear during a trip out of town, Annie and Baxter are left alone to try and determine whether something terrible has truly happened to their parents or if this is simply one more elaborate attempt at art. On top of that, they have to deal with the echoes of their bizarre childhood and how it has impacted their lives and relationships. Their adolescence has left them with an impaired ability to perceive and understand truth; neither is able to progress beyond the limits that childhood has placed on their perception.

This is only Jason Bateman's second feature directorial effort his first was 2013's underrated 'Bad Words' but he is showing a real knack for building narratives around characters that are both fully realized and thoroughly broken. 'The Family Fang' is an ideal story on which to rest that sensibility, with characters whose idiosyncratic weirdness doesn't prevent them from having complex and genuine emotional relationships.

Bateman the actor does a lot to ensure the success of Bateman the director. He has always had a wonderful and charismatic likeability, but some of his recent choices have shown him to be someone both willing and able to subvert that charisma, twisting it in ways that create fascinating variations on a theme. As for Kidman, this is as good as we've seen her in years; she allows herself a degree of vulnerability that has been largely absent from her performances for some time. Annie might be the most genuine character she's created in a decade or more. One might think the dynamic between the two could be strange, but instead it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

The elder Fangs give strong performances as well. Too often, Walken allows himself to fall into the trap of self-parody, creating portrayals that are more caricature than character. He largely resists that urge here, instead offering an interesting portrait of a self-important artist driven by ego disguised as artistic sensibility. Plunkett might be the least-known of the bunch, but she's far from a lesser light. In her hands, Camille is the quietly dutiful partner in crime, concealing and submerging her own artistic ambitions and emotions in the name of the work.

'The Family Fang' is a sharp and emotionally complex look at the dynamics of dysfunction that also explores the notion that the ends justify the means when it comes to the creation of art. Jason Bateman excels on both sides of the camera; he and the rest of the cast build powerful and nuanced character in service to a relatively simple, yet utterly compelling story.

[5 out of 5]


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