directed by Jason Bateman
by Bill Chambers David Lindsay-Abaire is the poor man's Tom Stoppard and Jason Bateman smothered whatever vulgar charms his directorial debut Bad Words may have possessed in an incongruous autumnal burnish, but they have a neutralizing effect on each other: Together, the strained seriousness of the former and the preposterous seriousness of the latter (Bateman shoots this one like The Godfather) create a curiously palatable harmony. The Family Fang is every inch The Skeleton Twins or some other brother-sister Sundance yarn but with a wonderfully specific source for the siblings' dysfunction: raised by performance artists, they were from a young age incorporated into their parents' notorious act, which tended to prey upon the sympathies of innocent bystanders. (In a very funny early flashback, for example, they stage a mock bank robbery that ends in the alleged shooting death of matriarch Camille Fang (Kathryn Hahn here, Maryann Plunkett in present day).) As adults, Buster (Bateman) and Annie (Nicole Kidman, looking supernaturally restored to her Peacemaker days) have distanced themselves from their past and channelled any lingering impulses towards exhibitionism into the more legitimate avenues of writing and acting, respectively. When Buster is shot in the head with a potato (don't ask), he is summoned home and drags Annie with him to serve as a buffer. Back in the family nest, father Caleb (Christopher Walken) immediately tries to rope them into a "piece," but not only have they moved on--so has society at large, now too insular to be a viable canvas for the Fangs' art. Walken's fury as he quits a prank involving counterfeit coupons is poignant; one senses a touch of the actor's own frustration with the world no longer appreciating his unique genius.
Foreshadowed by an in medias res opening, Caleb and Camille go missing en route to a weekend getaway and are presumed dead--the latest victims in a series of rest-stop killings. For Buster and Annie, this becomes a Schrödinger's cat dilemma: if their parents really have been murdered, that's terrible, but if their demise is a hoax, that's no less depressing for what it implies, i.e., that these Andy Kaufman stunts matter most to them. It's Buster who eventually articulates this, in an effort to prevent a downward-spiralling Annie from going the full Carrie Mathison, and the movie suffers a little in retrospect for not owning this ambivalence and ending right then and there. Credit where it's due, however, that the filmmakers sate the viewer's (and the characters') curiosity without contriving a third, less unsavoury outcome. The Family Fang climaxes in a dramatically gratifying rumination on what constitutes a proper upbringing; the tragedy of parenting being a game you only finally know how to play once your children are grown; and the handicap of childhood indoctrination, with art taking the place of go-to whipping boy religion. If the film comes perilously close to being anti-art, it's because Bateman's directorial chops (or lack thereof) don't offer much of a counterargument, although he's given invaluable assistance this time around by the Coen Brothers' composer Carter Burwell and their sound designer, Skip Lievsay. Programme: Special Presentations