Film Review: “The Family Fang” lacks bite

Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman play the children of Christopher Walken in this dysfunctional family tale.

Jason Bateman has made a pretty good living as The Normal Guy.

Sure, he first got famous playing Ricky Schroder’s “bad boy” friend from military school on the sitcom “Silver Spoons,” but since then he’s specialized in being the calm, rational center around whom insanity ceaselessly orbits. What I like to call the Andy Travis roles. The culmination of this was, of course, Michael Bluth on “Arrested Development,” and Bateman has carried this persona over to his big-screen work to both comic (“Horrible Bosses”) and dramatic (“The Gift”) effect.

When it came time for Bateman to follow in the footsteps of fellow brown-haired sitcom stars Zach Braff and John Krasinski and direct a feature, he opted to subvert this image and play a jerk, albeit a jerk with a heart of gold, in “Bad Words.” That movie wasn’t very good, and in his second starring-and-directing vehicle, “The Family Fang,” he’s back to playing the sort of fellow who’s only problems are (a) the eccentrics who complicate his life and (b) the fact that he’s just too darned nice.

"The Family Fang" takes its surname literally.

“The Family Fang” takes its surname literally.

“The Family Fang” is based on a best-selling and acclaimed 2011 novel by Kevin Wilson, and one gets the impression it had more bite on the page. It’s about siblings Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman), who, as children, were forced to participate in public performance-art stunts staged by their parents Caleb and Camille (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett now, Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn in flashbacks). You know, fun stuff like entering young Baxter in a child beauty pageant for girls, or making the kids play a song called “Kill All Parents” in Central Park.

Understandably alienated as adults, Annie is a successful but troubled actress and Baxter is, of course, a successful but troubled writer. (As is typical for writer in movies, his first book was a hit but his second was a disappointment.) After a bizarre head injury, Baxter is taken in by Caleb and Camille, and Annie joins him for support. But when the old folks disappear, leaving hints of violence, Annie is convinced it’s just another one of their zany pranks and sets out to prove it.

The potential is here for a scathing, morbidly funny examination of artistic pretension, lousy parenting, and dysfunction in general. But without any edge to the direction or the performances, it comes off as a poor man’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Even Walken, his trademark hair in full flower, feels restrained and softened despite playing a risible, self-centered schmuck.

Some of the period flashback scenes edge toward the sort of audience discomfort “The Family Fang” needs in order to make an impact. Ultimately, though, the movie is as gun shy about confronting the implications of the traumas it depicts as Caleb and Camille are about recognizing the damage they caused as parents.

(109 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, May 6, at Cinema 21) GRADE: B-


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