Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron Are Absurdly Sexy Together in ‘A Family Affair’


If you enjoyed watching Anne Hathaway play a mother seduced by her daughter’s favorite superstar in last month’s The Idea of You, but found yourself thinking, “I really wish this were even more absurd and unbelievably plotted,” boy, do I have the movie for you! Yes, that’s right, we are in a twin film heyday: In just the last two years, we’ve seen Immaculate contend with The First Omen, and Elvis battle Priscilla; Bad Boys: Ride or Die will soon face off against Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F. For god’s sake, even the kids' movies aren’t safe; two Pinocchio flicks duked it out recently, too.

And now, The Idea of You pushes up against A Family Affair, Netflix’s newest original movie, out on the streamer June 28. The two films are so similar that it’s even shockingly easy to slot different actors into the opposite film’s character outlines. There’s Nicole Kidman as the successful artist and mother, Brooke Hardwood, Joey King as Brooke’s headstrong daughter, Zara, and Zac Efron as impossibly famous hotshot Chris Cole, who comes between mother and daughter when he starts dating Brooke. Naturally, Zara is skeptical about her mother dating a self-absorbed Hollywood A-Lister known for being a Casanova. But just like in The Idea of You, Chris works to prove that his affections are true, although that’s far easier said than done for someone caught up in the whirlwind of flashbulbs and rabid fans.

None of these coincidental similarities is the fault of the actors, the film’s screenwriter Carrie Solomon, or director Richard LaGravenese. Still, I’d be remiss not to point out the glaring parallels right before our eyes. The resemblances between the two films are worth noting, since they could very well keep some viewers from indulging in A Family Affair if they’ve already seen The Idea of You. And that would be a grave mistake, considering that A Family Affair is like the tonally erratic, Disney Channel Original Movie sister to its twin film. The movie is surprisingly bizarre, with performances that range from amiable to asinine. And yet, for all its faults, the movie is an engrossing viewing experience, if only because what happens next is always a total mystery. As far as twin films go, The Idea of You and A Family Affair are totally fraternal: similar yet distinct, and watching one makes the other all the more fascinating.

Everything in A Family Affair is just left of center, almost believable but not entirely. The film opens with a montage of fake magazine covers and real red carpet footage, which suggest that, in this world, Efron plays an even more well-respected and successful version of himself. It’s a bit depressing if you think about it too hard. But Efron is up for poking fun at himself and his industry peers for taking themselves too seriously, even if he doesn’t always strike the right tone between this conceited character and his real-life earnestness.

Chris Cole is so famous that the only thing he has room for in his personal life is his ego, and Zara, his assistant, is tasked with procuring a new pair of diamond earrings every few months as a breakup gift for Chris’ latest arm candy. It’s far from what Zara wants to be doing after already spending a few years juggling her boss’ inane tasks, especially since Chris promised her that he’d show her the movie-producing ropes if she worked for him long enough.

Zara’s career is at a standstill, while Chris’ continues to blossom, and her complaints have trickled down to her mother, Brooke, a Joan Didion-type of a prolific American writer who has grayscale author photos on the back of her books’ dust jackets. Brooke and Zara are still grieving the death of Zara’s father 11 years prior, and Brooke enjoys living vicariously through her daughter’s adventurous life.

But that all takes a turn when Zara is pushed to the limit with her foolish assistant tasks and quits her job, leaving Chris without the person he relies on the most. When he tries to make amends by visiting Zara at home, he gets much more than he bargained for after running into Brooke, who is horny as all hell after spending the better part of a decade bereft over one man. One thing leads to another, and by the time Zara gets home, she finds her mother giving her ex-boss the old reverse cowgirl.

Harry Styles Gets His Own ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ in ‘The Idea of You’

Zara’s used to seeing her mom mourning, not moaning, and the resulting reaction is one of the film’s funniest scenes, thanks to King’s knack for physical comedy. (Buster Keaton is rolling in his grave, wishing he could’ve been alive when they made The Kissing Booth.) King dials up the slapstick, but these gags often war with the film’s more serious moments. The balance between comedy and drama is not Solomon’s strong suit, and her script bounces between the two with frustrating incompetence. Examined individually, the dramatic and comedic elements are well-constructed. Solomon—who makes her feature screenwriting debut with A Family Affair— only needs to improve the ways she meshes them together.

The narrative is further muddled by Zara’s outsized reactions to Chris’ requests, which imply that she sees him as the boss from hell, yet she treats him with the affection of a close friend. The lack of a tangible power imbalance keeps the film’s central conflicts shaky and implausible, but there’s a strange thrill to that confusion. Watching A Family Affair is a tonal and logical rollercoaster with lax safety regulations; it’s fun to stand up on the ride until you're headed straight for a steel pole. A third of the way through the film, Christmas decorations appear, despite no former mention of the movie taking place during the holiday season. It’s as if A Family Affair had been written as a Christmas movie before producers demanded rewrites, but somehow the final shooting script retained the word “Christmas” on half of its pages.

LaGravenese’s direction is executed more smoothly, with the film kept at a pace amiable enough to overlook—or, at the very least, be charmed by—the sheer outrageousness of its script. It’s tough to deny the soft pleasures of Kidman flouncing around a Nancy Meyers kitchen, lit so brightly that she appears to have stumbled onto the set of the first Sex and the City movie. And when the film moves off Zara’s character and focuses more heavily on Brooke, A Family Affair finds some stable ground to build its story. Kidman’s forays into comedy are typically dicey, but she plays Brooke straight enough to strike the right mood and make the movie briefly believable. A scene that arrives toward the end of the film, where Brooke talks about how difficult it was to juggle her career with her late husband’s terminal diagnosis, is even downright poignant. There are shades of truth and affecting emotion buried in LaGravense’s film; it just takes the right actor to draw them out.

Kidman does the same with Efron, whose daft pretty-boy character is much more enjoyable when he’s interacting with Brooke. Efron and Kidman maintain the chemistry that they had in 2012’s The Paperboy, which I suppose is what happens when you work together on a movie where one person pees on the other. Their romantic dynamic is pleasant, even if we saw the same older-younger, artist-celebrity relationship in another film just a few weeks back. Had two other, less capable actors been leading A Family Affair, the film might just land as a poorly timed, unintentional knockoff. Instead, it’s bolstered by a few talented performers who need to do little more than show up for a great time and collect a check. Their excitement over the material isn’t absent, just lacking, and it gives the entire thing a hilarious, almost parodic touch. Such is the case for every pair of twin films: One will always be worse, but that’s what makes it interesting. LaGravenese’s movie has its tongue planted in its cheek and a wink in its eye—two things its twin doesn’t have. I can’t say I’ve thought about The Idea of You much since I watched it, but I will be telling everyone to watch A Family Affair all summer long.

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