If Leo Tolstoy once claimed in Anna Karenina that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” that’s because he never watched an independent film. The “dysfunctional family drama” is such well-trod territory at this point that the pat familiarity of the genre is difficult for filmmakers to transcend. Jason Bateman, who has mounted his second directorial feature with an adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s darkly comic novel, The Family Fang, starred in one of these last year. This Is Where I Leave You co-starred a group of likable actors — including Tina Fey, Adam Driver, and Corey Stoll — playing siblings who unearth dark secrets and learn difficult lessons, just in time for a group photo.
This time, the adult children are Baxter Fang (Bateman), a novelist struggling to write his third book, and Annie (Nicole Kidman), a famous actress with a drinking problem. When they were young, the pair starred in a series of avant garde videos for their parents, in which they performed random acts of chaos in public and filmed bystanders’ reactions. It’s like Jackass by way of Chris Burton. In one piece, the family pretends to rob a bank, but all they want is the branch’s hidden stash of lollipops. Another finds Annie and Baxter, still preteens, performing a song (amusingly titled “Kill All Parents”) in Central Park to raise money for their ailing dog. Their parents show up to heckle their set. Onlookers are outraged. Who are these horrible people?
The contentious relationship between artists and their work, as well as the children caught in the crossfire, adds a unique wrinkle to the family dynamic. Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) are as uncompromising about their creative vision as they are about their parenting. When Baxter and Annie grow up and leave home, it destroys their parents’ work, who never find a way to translate their family project into a two-person enterprise. Caleb and Camille illustrate this problem when they attempt to prank a chicken joint by handing out coupons for free sandwiches to customers, unbeknownst to employees. They expect that managers will reject the deal as a fraud and the patrons will revolt. The managers foil their plan by proceeding as if the offer were real.
But whose vision is it, really? After Baxter is injured in an accident while working on a story for a men’s magazine, the family reunites in the hospital, and the truth of the situation begins to unfold. Camille, who went to art school to be a painter, was mostly along for the ride. She wanted to make her husband happy, but the cost of his artistic fulfillment is perhaps more than Caleb’s family can bear. The biting screenplay, written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), does a marvelous job illustrating how the very qualities that make artists great can destroy those around them. Caleb is unspeakably cruel to his family; in a documentary about the Fangs’ career, he casually mentions that he didn’t care about being a father until he realized he could use his children as props in his work.
The Family Fang particularly succeeds as a showcase for Walken, who is skilled at bringing to life men of unbending will. His most famous scene as an actor is perhaps a moment from Michael Cimino’s great The Deer Hunter, in which he plays a Vietnam soldier, Nick, with a taste for Russian roulette. His head wrapped in a red bandage, Nick barely blinks as he repeatedly pulls the trigger. Every moment of his in The Family Fang is that scene, both his characters unflinching as they are compelled forward, as if by unseen forces. Decades later, Walken has perfected that haunted look of determination, and in Bateman’s film, the actor’s gaze turns monstrous. Walken, now 73, is too often typecast based on his trademark speech patterns, and The Family Fang is a reminder of what a remarkable actor he can be. It’s a return to form.
It’s disappointing, then, that the film becomes less idiosyncratic as it goes along, giving into convention in its final stretches. During the first half hour, you won’t have the slightest clue where The Family Fang is going, but after a while, it becomes very clear what road this Winnebago is headed down. When Caleb and Camille vanish after what appears to be a bloody homicide, the siblings go off on a trip to locate them. Annie believes their disappearance was staged as yet another performance. Baxter isn’t sure. Their quest, as you might have guessed, forces the siblings to unearth dark secrets and learn difficult lessons. You want Baxter and Annie to find the closure they’re looking for, but perhaps group therapy should be on their own dime, not the audience’s.
What’s most unfortunate is that The Family Fang leaves so many ideas on the table that would have made for a far more fascinating film, one befitting its unique premise. While exploring their family’s home, Baxter and Annie find a collection of their mother’s paintings, which have a Henry Darger quality to them. These works are extraordinary, and they speak to the promising career Camille gave up for Caleb. She comments that her husband would be furious if he discovered them, so Camille keeps them hidden away. For some reason, the movie discards this narrative almost instantly. For all the care and effort The Family Fang expends on sketching a fleshed-out portrait of a miserable sociopath, it never extends the same courtesy to his biggest victim.