Nicole Kidman & Zac Efron in Netflix Rom-Com 5

Throughout A Family Affair, daughter Zara (Joey King) and mom Brooke (Nicole Kidman) argue over just what kind of a man Chris Cole (Zac Efron) is. To Zara, he’s a self-absorbed movie star boss who oscillates between unreasonable demands and threats of firing. For Brooke, he’s an attentive lover, the first man to reawaken her to the possibility of romance since the death of Zara’s father, Charlie.

Neither of them are exactly wrong — Chris, like anyone, contains multitudes. Where the Richard LaGravenese-directed A Family Affair struggles, however, is in convincing us he might be both at once. Part showbiz send-up and part earnest romantic drama, the film lurches awkwardly between its two modes without settling on a single cohesive tone. Fortunately, both halves are also blessed with the same quality that allows Chris to embody both Zara’s idea of him and Brooke’s: enough charm to make you come away smiling, even as you shake your head at its missteps.

A Family Affair

The Bottom Line

Efron delights in an uneven but enjoyable romance.

Release Date: Friday, June 28 (Netflix)
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Joey King, Liza Koshy, Kathy Bates, Sherry Cola
Director: Richard Lagravenese
Screenwriter: Carrie Solomon

Rated PG-13,
1 hour 51 minutes

The first Chris we meet is the obnoxious one. Onscreen, he’s the Marvel-style hero of a terrible-sounding franchise called Icarus Rush; offscreen, he’s a vain man-child pitching hissy fits at Zara. He calls her at odd hours to send her looking for protein powder, and makes her assemble gift baskets for his dogs with her own money. He runs through girlfriends like tissues, then sends her to pick up his stuff from their houses. He strings her along with the promise of an assistant producer credit, but continually insists she’s not “ready” to do much more than pick up his dry cleaning. None of these gags are especially fresh — Chris is simply every spoiled Hollywood stereotype rolled into one. But screenwriter Carrie Solomon comes at them with the wry fondness of an insider who knows just how ridiculous her industry can be.

They’re further elevated by Efron, who was last seen in the weepie The Iron Claw but reminds us here that he’s an even better comic talent than a dramatic one. His crackerjack timing turns decent jokes into laugh-out-loud hilarious ones, and his puppyish sweetness keeps Chris endearing at his worst. His (platonic) dynamic with King positively crackles with both exasperation and begrudging affection. At one point, Chris scoffs that it’s “derogatory” for her to call him a celebrity because he’s a movie star, damnit. The moment plays as a joke, but it also contains a kernel of truth. Like The Fall Guy, A Family Affair serves as a testament to the power of movie-star charisma while simultaneously poking fun at it.

All this Hollywood satire is merely set-up for the real plot of A Family Affair, which kicks in once Chris invites himself over to the home Zara shares with her mother. While waiting for her to show, he and Brooke get to talking over tequila shots. The next thing either of them know, Brooke is ripping open the very t-shirt that Chris, only the day before, had screamed at Zara for not treating more gently.

At first, the hook-up is played for laughs. Chris remains his ditzy self, wooing Brooke from lines with his own movies. (“This time I mean it,” he insists when she teasingly calls him out on it.) Zara is so startled to find her mother in bed with her employer that she goes full slapstick, choking on a grape and knocking herself unconscious. Fumbling to explain, Brooke accidentally invokes the same excuse Zara gave her for getting a forbidden eyebrow piercing as a teen: “It made sense at the time when the guy was putting it in.”

But A Family Affair takes on a more sincere and sentimental tone as the hook-up evolves into something deeper. Kidman and Efron share a decently sweet chemistry that’s nothing like the tawdry dynamic they flaunted in The Paperboy. Chris gets vulnerable about his childhood tragedies and the loneliness of fame. She confesses it’s been years since she felt desired, and allows herself the luxury of “going a little crazy” for the first time since she can remember. Although there are moments when the film goes big with expensive dinners and private studio tours and an adorably quirky third-act gesture, the relationship is generally pitched as a slow-burn love affair, not an impassioned fling.

In fact, A Family Affair barely leans into the fairy tale of dating a rich and sexy A-lister. In contrast to The Idea of You, with which it shares a superficially similar premise, the film is largely unconcerned with the specific perks or challenges of dating while famous. Brooke is unfamiliar with Chris’ career, and she does not need him to whisk her away on vacations or bring her to fancy galas; she’s done well enough already to have her own cliffside mansion and closet full of designer dresses. Though Chris can’t so much as go for a grocery run without getting swarmed, the couple do not discuss what it might mean to go public with their relationship — and they never have to, since it somehow never happens. The biggest threat to their connection is Zara’s disapproval, not the gap in age and social standing.

The fantasies that the movie does tap into are more mundane, and almost more poignant for it. One is of being a female writer whose talent attracts, rather than intimidates, an eligible suitor. Brooke recounts how fellow writer Charlie seemed to resent her success; Chris, on the other hand, goes out of his way to find her writing, and even memorizes her best bits by heart. The other is of being a mother whose child finally appreciates her sacrifices. All three lead characters could be accused of making short-sighted or self-serving choices. But it’s Brooke the movie portrays as a saint who’s earned whatever happiness she can get, and Zara who’s made to apologize for being selfish.

Parallels are drawn between Brooke lovingly tending to Zara’s every need through a difficult childhood and Zara catering to Chris’ now. I’d point out that those situations are not remotely the same, and in fact have no business being in the same conversation — just as A Family Affair‘s Hollywood material and its drama feel at times like they’ve come from two completely different films. But the lines are delivered with such heartfelt tenderness that for a moment, you might be moved in spite of yourself.

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