Jason Bateman’s second film as director opens with a sequence that is one of the most provocative introductions to a movie I’ve ever seen. I am not going to tell you what it entails, not even in the barest outlines, because watching it unfold and feeling wonderfully bewildered at where it goes is a truly rare pleasure in a cinematic environment clogged with cookie-cutter films. And once it’s over, you’re left with an even more delicious sense of having absolutely no idea what sort of story this is setting up.
I’m so glad I knew nothing about The Family Fang before I saw it — I have not read the bestselling novel of the same name by Kevin Wilson that is it based on — except that it stars Bateman (Zootropolis, The Gift) and Nicole Kidman (Secret in Their Eyes, Paddington) as siblings (and that was enough to get me intrigued). Their Annie and Baxter Fang are artists, somewhat successful but struggling with their art: she’s a moderately well-known Hollywood actress who’s appeared in a bunch of crap that she’s better than, and he’s a wunderkind novelist whose third book-in-progress is stuck in low gear while he is mired in writer’s block. They have been avoiding their parents — Christopher Walken (Eddie the Eagle, Jersey Boys) and Maryann Plunkett (True Story, The Night Listener) — for years because of, erm, let’s call it deep-seated artistic differences. But now they are all thrown together again in a situation that starts out mildly absurd and progresses to outright outlandish. Or maybe where it goes is depressingly mundane; the borderland between the two states is a narrow one in this family.
When I tell you that Fang is strikingly original, I mean for you to understand that this applies to every angle here: the astutely drawn relationship between adult opposite-gender siblings as unwavering support for but also essential challenge to each other, which is something we see onscreen with vanishing infrequency, is the most conventional thing about this film, and there’s nothing conventional about it. (Bateman is his usual splendidly sharp but understated self; Kidman matches him beat for beat in a way that she doesn’t often get the chance to do.) Their warm but contentious relationship is the box out of which emerges a tale of the existential crisis of a whole family, but not in any way you’ve seen before, one that explores the boundaries between being true to oneself and being a selfish bastard when other people need you. It asks how much you may reasonably draw on other people as the inspiration for your art. It’s not funny in a way that makes you laugh out loud, but funny in a way that makes you uncomfortable. That is a place that few movies dare to go.