Kevin Wilson’s delightfully idiosyncratic 2011 novel “The Family Fang,” about a family of performance artists, probably interested many people in the first place because it seemed to bear a desirable resemblance to a Wes Anderson film. Quirky, dysfunctional family drama is the subject of one of his most beloved works, “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Even the cover of Wilson’s novel was suggestive of Anderson’s signature visual style.
When the book was made into a film, however, it was directed not by Anderson but by Jason Bateman, who also stars as one of the Fang children in adulthood, Baxter. Perhaps a desire to distance itself from being a Wes Anderson knockoff was slightly overplayed, because Bateman’s version, while good, is more downbeat than it has to be. A fear of excessive quirkiness may have dampened the tone. Like a kid embarrassed of his weird parents, Bateman’s rather dour version is too far from the tone of the endearing source material.
There is plenty to admire in what is still a singular story of two performance artists, Caleb and Camille Fang, and how they place their commitment to creating disturbing public events above the welfare of raising their offspring. The fact that their parents call Annie and Baxter Child A and Child B throughout their lives is just one example of the Fangs’ exploitation of their kids as both witting and unwitting participants in their stunts, and their young lives as raw artistic material.
Childhood flashbacks pepper the adult lives of Annie (Nicole Kidman), now a famous but shaky actress, and Baxter (Jason Bateman), as a published author also on the skids. Their relationship is the heart of the film, and both performances are excellent. Bateman just keeps growing from his familiar wiseguy roles and, while this film wasn’t what I expected from a source I really loved, Bateman makes it his own. I honestly think people who have not read the book will appreciate it more.
It’s a great premise. When Baxter has an accident involving a potato gun, The Fang parents and their adult children are brought together once more in the house where they grew up. They bond while watching tapes of their old performances, but Child A and Child B bristle when their parents try to involve them in another stunt. Then the parents go missing, and while the police think they’ve been murdered, their kids know them too well to assume they’ve really died.
Truly original characters go on a one-of-a-kind detective hunt and, while the circumstances are pretty unusual, there is a lovely warmth to the growing bond between the adult siblings and their shared shorthand from their childhood. Their ongoing negotiations over what they want to keep and what they want to throw away in their lives is extremely relatable. These two actors bring the story to life wonderfully.
It might not be as good as the book, but it’s still better than plenty of movies. Bateman’s version of “The Family Fang” was not exactly what I was looking for, but as an experience unto itself, it is worth checking out.
“The Family Fang” is currently available to rent.