Jason Bateman’s second film as a director is a fairly solid adaptation of the best-selling book by Kevin Wilson about a quirky family of performance artists. The end result is a sort of The Royal Tenenbaums meets Gone Girl as the adult children try to solve the mystery of their stunt-loving parents’ sudden disappearance.
Unlike the first film he directed, the funny spelling-bee comedy Bad Words, Bateman doesn’t take the showy lead role, but plays the subdued younger brother Baxter, who’s content to let out-of-control older sister Annie (Kidman) take center stage.
Bateman, who’s let’s not forget is a former child star himself, seems to have gravitated towards projects that examine what it’s like to be in the public eye as a kid. Is there lasting damage? In his case, there seems to be a greater tendency to black humor.
Back in the ’70s Caleb and Camille Fang (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) were famed for their outrageous performance art, such as the prank at the film’s beginning in which Camille appears to have been shot dead by her own son as horrified bank patrons look on.
The Fangs’ ill-advised decision to include their children Annie and Baxter – whom they referred to merely as “Child A” and “Child B” – in their stunts means their kids are more than usually screwed-up adults. Annie s now an actress whose notorious Lindsay Lohan-esque antics have made her a tabloid fixture and Baxter is a struggling novelist trying to bounce back from his last failed book.
At the film’s beginning, Baxter has foolishly injured himself while on assignment with some potato-gun-loving hillbillies, which forces an awkward family reunion. Caleb and Camille are eager to start up the stunts again with the kids on board, but Annie is under strict orders from her agent to keep a low profile to save her fading career.
When they refuse to cooperate, their parents take a trip out of town, then disappear. Is it their biggest stunt yet or are they simply the latest victims in a series of violent rest-stop abductions? Cynical Annie is convinced it’s one more prank, while Baxter is certain their parents aren’t faking it this time.
Walken brings his innately weird energy to the role of prank patriarch Caleb, who recalls Royal Tenenbaum, the long-absent father of a highly gifted clan. But unlike Royal, Caleb seeks no forgiveness and offers no apologies. He merely expects obedience from his children, who, after all, he offered the priceless gift of continually waking up society from its daily slumber.
As the ’70s era Caleb, Jason Butler Harner (Non-Stop, Alcatraz) doesn’t try to capture Walken’s oft-imitated stop-start vocal cadence, but makes an otherwise believable younger version of him.
Kathryn Hahn (of Happyish and Transparent) is possibly better known to audiences than the elder Camille, played by stage actress Plunkett as somewhat dithery earth mother torn between honoring her husband’s anti-social agenda and her own commitment to her children.
Even without having read the book (which I didn’t), you may guess the central answer of the story. But the film is still a satisfying take on what we do and don’t owe to our parents, both good and bad. Would Annie and Baxter have followed their individual artistic pursuits if they hadn’t been recruited into fooling the public at a young age? How much should you sacrifice for your art? If it’s your kids, then you’re definitely going too far.
What faults there are in the film are largely due to the plot, which hinges on some fairly long-shot contrivances and a too-tidy ending. And the music of Carter Burwell is as just as distracting and oddly sappy as it was in last year’s Legend. Was this really a story that called for harps?
At the very least, the film will make you thank your parents for not being as wildly screwy as the Fangs. Or it’ll just make you want to watch The Royal Tenenbaums again.