Jason Bateman‘s “The Family Fang,” which premiered on Monday afternoon at the Toronto Film Festival, is another TIFF film that walks the line between drama and comedy to crowd-pleasing effect.
Far less broad and gleefully offensive than Bateman’s directorial debut, 2013’s “Bad Words,” the film is a sometimes awkward but often winning family story that veers between dramatic scenes delivered by Nicole Kidman and Bateman, and the eccentric comic stylings of Christopher Walken, who steals every scene he’s in as a performance artist who used his kids in a series of elaborate public provocations.
“This is not ‘Bad Words,’” said Bateman when he introduced the film at the Winter Garden on Monday. “It’s a drama, with some funny parts in it.”
But when those funny parts feature Walken as a guy whose idea of art is inciting insurrection at a fast-food chicken stand, and whose first extended scene makes liberal use of the phrase “titty shot,” the humor has the potential to overwhelm the dramatic story of adult children who need to break with their parents.
The fact that it doesn’t is a tribute to a story by novelist Kevin Wilson and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire that is ready to acknowledge how eccentricity can simultaneously be amusing and harmful, and a tribute to Bateman’s growth as a director.
The film, initially developed by Kidman’s Blossom Films, centers on Bateman and Kidman as Buster and Annie Fang, the grown children of Caleb and Camille, played by Walken and Maryann Plunkett. Convinced that the only true art can happen in unregulated public spaces, Caleb (abetted by his slightly less eager wife) uses his kids as accomplices in elaborate performances that include a fake bank robbery.
But now that Buster and Annie have left home and gone on to careers as a novelist and actress, respectively, Caleb and Camille’s art has suffered. So when the couple goes missing under suspicious circumstances that suggest foul play, Annie immediately jumps to the conclusion that it’s nothing but another piece of art.
Walken’s droll performance dominates the movie to a certain degree; he’s the one who gets quotable lines like, “You have kids, you’re going to damage them. So what?”
But by the end, the heart of the film lies in the decision that Buster and Annie must make, and on the intricacies of the parent-child bond.
“The Family Fang” is kind of messy but also fun and touching; it’s a definite step forward for Bateman as a director, who said afterwards that the hardest part of the job was to keep his cool while acting alongside Walken, one of his idols.
When he and Walken were asked in a post-screening Q&A if they’d studied performance artists in preparation for the film, Walken said he’d been around performance art for most of his life in New York City.
Then Bateman shrugged. “A guy once defecated in front of me in the middle of the day on Sixth Avenue,” he said. “But I don’t know if he was doing a piece.”