There’s a world-weary misanthropy than runs through child-star turned adult comic actor and director Jason Bateman’s work. And that trademark “I have no you-and-I-no-whats left to give” permeates “The Family Fang,” his second feature film as director/co-star.
But that pose’s shortcomings as an ethos, a way of looking at the world, weigh-down this smart but half-hearted farce, based on a Kevin Wilson novel.
It’s about this quartet of professional performance art pranksters — parents who enlisted/coerced their kids in their stunts, from an early age, in the name of “art.”
They’d fake a bank robbery, and Baxter, whom his folks (Kathryn Hahn plays the younger version of his mother, Jason Butler Harner his father) call “Child B,” would pass the note to the teller, pull out the gun and fire the shot that brings the “robbery” to its climax.
Child A, or Annie, would be the weeping daughter of an “innocent victim” hit by the stray bullet. Convincingly.
Or the kids would be folk singing buskers, singing “Kill your parents” to appreciative audience. Appreciative, save for two hecklers (the parents).
Dad would secretly videotape the gags, and do the reveal.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let this be your trumpet call. Life is sweet, so taste it while you can.”
That is one messed up childhood. The proof is in their adulthood. They look like successes.
Annie is a mercurial, “indie cinema darling” and loner with impulse-control issues.
Baxter is also a loner, a would-be author with writer’s block, a sometime journalist with his own warped view of stunts and what the real world can actually do to you when they go wrong.
A magazine feature he’s writing on redneck potato-gun buffs goes wrong and his long-estranged parents (now played by Christopher Walken and Maryanne Plunkett) are summoned. He summons Annie from a movie set where she’s just stirred up the tabloids with her reaction to an unscripted nude scene sprung upon her by the pervy director.
Annie and Baxter discover parents who have lost their way. It’s impossible to stand out with their elaborately planned, supposedly socially-conscious stunts, in the youtube era of viral videos of accidents, stunts-gone-wrong and cute kittens.
The kids should rejoin the team, “just like old times.” But the kids aren’t having it.
That’s when their parents disappear. Another stunt? Or are they dead? The siblings disagree about that.
Bateman dials down his already low-key slow-burn under-reactions, but never gives a hint of the man who is working out a way of turning his broken past into an asset, that he’s absorbed the lessons of his parents’ “art.”
“If you’re in control, then the chaos will happen around you and not TO you.”
Kidman works up to a fine but somewhat under-motivated fury.
Truthfully, this doesn’t really go anywhere. Unlike “Bad Words,” Bateman’s acrid world-hating comedy about a grown man competing in spelling kids’ spelling bees, there’s no hilarity in the set-ups, no pathos in the payoff.
Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the play Kidman’s somber “Rabbit Hole” was based on, but also the book to “Shrek” stage musical, and several humorless scripts (“Poltergeist,” “Inkheart,” “Rise of the Guardians”). He doesn’t give anybody anything pointed to say or do.
And Bateman’s “Life, are you kidding me?” instincts, which have served him so well as an adult, work against “The Family Fang.” Viewers, it turns out, have to have a f— left to give for a movie to work.
Maybe it’s nothing more than some sort of demon worth exorcising. It’s a telling film selection for a former child star with a child-star sibling to make. Kids “used” by their stage-managing parents grow up a bit messed up.
But as intriguing as that is to think about, “Family Fang” doesn’t work, even as onscreen therapy.
MPAA Rating:R for some language
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Christopher Walken, Maryanne Plunkett, Harris Yulin
Credits: Directed by Jason Bateman, script by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the Kevin Wilson novel . A release.
Running time: 140