You know that primly annoyed, nice-ish guy that Jason Bateman always plays? The straight-arrow whose barely-held-in disgust suggests that universal American feeling that it's everyone but you who is the selfish idiot? If you've ever suspected that the real Bateman was himself swallowing back some annoyance at the stupidity of projects such as Identity Thief, here's the best evidence yet. His second feature, The Family Fang, is a tense and involving dysfunction indie that starts as dark comedy but later stretches into mystery, melodrama and arts criticism.
That doesn't mean it starts promisingly. The story, adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from Kevin Wilson's novel, has Bateman and Nicole Kidman moping through the kind of adult lives real people dream of: He's a novelist and she's a screen actress. Like all siblings in funny-sad indie things, they must band together to deal with their parents, and like most intergenerational comedies since Family Ties, it's the kids who are more conservative than their boomer parents. The Fangs were roving performance artists, staging and filming confrontational happenings at banks, parks and — occasionally — in their own kids' lives. (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett play the parents in the present-day scenes, sometimes getting to hold forth at length about the nature of art, with Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn taking over in honey-filtered flashbacks.)
Like street preachers, the Fangs impressed their children into their public troublemaking, the father referring to them in cold, materials-minded shorthand as Child A and Child B. As adults, the kids turn apostate, refusing to participate in a disturbance at an amusement park — and even quoting back to their father the reviews of his most recent work. He, in turn, is dismissive of their films and books, though he appreciates Kidman's character's nude appearance in a tabloid: “It's about time you started playing with celebrity and the idea of the female form as a viewed object,” he proclaims. So, the parents favor conceptual art, and the kids are just trying to make a living crafting un-terrible entertainment. Wilson's novel and Bateman's film don't just showcase this rift — they mine gold from it.
The Family Fang deepens as it takes on some pulpier elements. Forty-five minutes in, a terrible fate seems to befall the parents, and it's left to the adult children to work out whether it was a random tragedy or their biggest staged work yet. The story has the spine of a mystery, but its chief discoveries aren't really the clues that the siblings pick up in their parents' old CDs and VHS tapes. They're also not the cheap epiphanies you might expect. Instead, the lessons are about facing disappointment and then moving on — but holding close to the people from the past who have held to you. It's a welcome balance to every inspirational film about artists that has insisted being a horrible person is OK just so long as the art is significant.
Bateman is nimble in handling a tricky mix of flashbacks and pranks, genres and tones. As you might expect from such a gifted ensemble performer, he's also an actor's director. In montage, he sometimes depends upon music to make us feel things, while in his best scenes you might forget he's making choices: Everything seems driven by his cast, especially Kidman, who fills out Bateman's deceptively loose long takes with surprising beats and richly textured feeling. Her Annie is a minor star, and a little embarrassed even to be that. A hardness in her eyes makes clear she's put up with too much already, and she might not with much more. It's been too long since Kidman's been free to be a person onscreen, someone specific and layered whose responses seem to spring not from the script but from the lived moments we're watching.
As an actor, Bateman seems at last to have sprung from his type. His strong turn as a thriller creep in The Gift might have been an interrogation of the usual Bateman square — his prim Everydudes have always disguised their cruel and obsessive streaks with optimism. Here, he's freed from the usual cycle of high hopes and comic frustration, instead sketching a subtle, effective portrait of a survivor. This guy's too smart to enable the lunacy of the family he's stuck with, and that's something of a revelation: A Jason Bateman character declining to get roped into public humiliation is something like Jack Benny managing to make a purchase without incident. It's even a little moving: If he can so persuasively break from his patterns, maybe the rest of us can, too.