The career of Jason Bateman can be divided into three wildly fascinating chapters: teen stardom on “The Hogan Family,” a surprise comeback as the lead on modern classic “Arrested Development,” and his current place as a busy actor and fledgling director who dabbles (with mixed success) in both comedy and drama.
If “The Family Fang” is any indication, the latter stage could be Bateman’s most unique yet. He is the director and co-star of this dark comedy, and it’s an unexpected winner. Why unexpected? Because on paper, at least, this one could not sound more questionable.
Consider the plot, about the adult children of an artist couple famed for staging public interactive pieces before unsuspecting audiences. Consider also the erratic track records of Bateman, “Fang” lead Nicole Kidman, and co-star Christopher Walken.
Yet in his second film as a director, Bateman finds a comfortable middle ground between dark comedy and high drama. The result is a confident, entertaining work that lacks the laugh-out-loud humor of his delightfully dirty first effort, “Bad Words,” but is stronger in every other way.
The film also overcomes a deadly opening sequence that ranks among the most unfunny and tone-deaf in recent cinema. It’s our first taste of the public art projects of Caleb and Camille Fang, played in the present day by Walken and Maryann Plunkett.
Key to the couple’s interactive pieces was the involvement of their children, and that makes the opening, in particular, very uncomfortable. (The piece is a dopey “bank robbery” with fake guns, fake blood and lots of lollipops.)
It soon becomes clear, however, that this discomfort is intentional. As embodied by Kidman and Bateman, the grown-up Fang children have carried the scars of the public spotlight into adulthood.
Kidman’s Annie Fang is an actress whose career is in decline, while Bateman’s Baxter Fang is a washed-up author whose first book was a success, and whose follow-up was a dud.
These clichéd occupations are carried over from the source material, author Kevin Wilson’s best-selling novel. Happily, as the film progresses, Bateman and Kidman break free from these initially rote characterizations.
Following a shooting-by-potato-gun (yep), Baxter returns home to see his parents. Joined by his sister, the children are quickly brought back into the interactive fold by mom and dad. Bateman the director has fun with this reunion piece, involving fake outrage over fake chicken sandwich coupons.
Brother and sister watch as their father becomes exasperated over the failed piece, and an earlier question asked about the family seems prescient: “Are they geniuses or charlatans?”
The plot soon takes a left turn, as Caleb and Camille seemingly disappear with violent suddenness. Still ensconced in the family home, Baxter and Annie must determine whether the disappearance is accurate, and what to do about it. What they find changes the lives of all involved.
It’s also rather sad, which is why “The Family Fang” is difficulty to categorize. Yes, it is a dark comedy, but the laughs are mostly acidic. It builds to some interestingly profound questions about familial role-playing, the rights of children, and the weight of one’s past. Heavy stuff, but there are several reasons why “Fang” is able to move past its flaws and excel. These start with the twisty script by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”). He finds the right tone, and the emotional levity, that make this more than a laugher.
Also key is the casting. Kidman, especially, is better than she’s been in years. It’s a sharp, moving performance that is essential to the film’s successes. Bateman has the smaller role, but is in peak likability mode. (To see him in peak unlikability mode, rent the deliciously nasty thriller “The Gift.”)
Walken finally has a role worth his talents. Too often squandered in films like “Joe Dirt 2,” he finds the humanity in a character who could easily have none. Perhaps this is thanks to Bateman, an actor and director with a real understanding of that fine line between laughs and tears.
On the basis of “Bad Words” – a film destined to be a cult classic – and “The Family Fang,” Jason Bateman is undoubtedly a real-deal director. It would not be surprising to see him tackle straight drama next, and to have great success doing so.
“The Family Fang”
3 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett
Director: Jason Bateman
Running time: 105 minutes
Rated: R for language
The lowdown: A brother and sister return to their family home in search of their famous parents who have disappeared.