‘A Family Affair’ Movie Review: A Hollow Rom-Com

A Family Affair is the newest rom-com from the streaming magnate Netflix. Directed by Richard LaGravenese and written by Carrie Solomon, the movie doesn’t positively add to the company’s track record. While it’s not a copy-and-paste version of it, the film is certainly deeply reminiscent of Prime Video’s rom-com from earlier this year The Idea of You.

The story of A Family Affair

Zara Ford (Joey King), a celebrity assistant and aspiring producer, supports her boss, famed actor Chris Cole (Zac Efron), with his every need. She picks up his dirty clothes from ex-girlfriends’ houses, writes apology letters anytime she steps out of line, and humors his late-night requests for groceries and protein powder. Ford eventually becomes fed up with Cole’s Sisyphysian requests – and his wantonly false promises at a promotion – and quits, leaving him to learn his lines and fetch his own lattes just a week before the next iteration of the slopfest of the fictional Icarus Rush franchise. 

When he comes over to apologize to her and get her back as his assistant, Cole runs into Ford’s mother, Brooke Harwood (Nicole Kidman), an esteemed essayist deeply inspired by Joan Didion (a red flag already). The two develop a quick bond that eventually becomes a sweaty tryst interrupted by Zara, who, in the film’s most slapstick moment, spits up the grapes she was eating, screams, and then proceeds to knock herself out running into her mother’s door frame.  The story from there is exactly what we expect: the couple split out of respect for Zara, they reunite, they fall deeply in love, they fight because of some well-timed Zara-based malfeasance, and, through Zara’s personal growth, she pulls them back together, and the couple is happily in love forever and ever. 

Throughout this, Zara becomes more and more selfish, alienating herself from her family and, of course, from the standard quirky best friend, played by Liza Koshy. The duo hits their breaking point when Zara gets lost in her own world – as is always the case in these films – but in a moment of vulnerability, she admits that she’s been a bad friend, and the pair’s friendship is rekindled

The (almost) saving graces  of A Family Affair

Efron is a gem throughout. He starts as the stereotypical self-centered star – he has the world’s softest tee-shirt and freaks out when Zara puts it in a plastic bag, “It’s one of a kind; I only have two!” he yowls.  As he gets closer with Brooke, though, he starts to develop a sense of humanity, flawed though it may be. Efron nails this transition, morphing the sexy meathead into a loveable if out-of-touch sweetheart.  Efron in this third stage of his career – Disney, then anti-Disney as first and second – is nearing the impressive category of actors I can virtually guarantee will be good in whatever movie they’re in, regardless of the film’s quality (other members of this group include Florence Pugh, Anne Hathaway, and Colman Domingo). 

Similarly, the great Kathy Bates (who fits in the aforementioned category) plays Zara’s grandmother and Brooke’s mom with a precise balance. Having to advise both Brooke and Zara, who are often at odds, Bates appears judicial with her aid, giving people what they need without adding anything unnecessary to the conversation. 

A Family Affair as compared to The Idea of You

A Family Affair is not inherently badThe thing is, for a film so insistent that man isn’t an island, each character feels as if their life has no consequences on anything outside the film. In The Idea of You, the effects of the characters’ relationships are evident; the paparazzi show up outside of the mother’s house, and the people at school start to bully the daughter about her mother’s relationship. In A Family Affair, outside of the three main characters, nothing gets out of the hidden world of celebrity. Rather than a rousing dramedy about dating a star, the film becomes a vanity project that its own characters – particularly Zara – would hate on. 

At the same time, the characters hardly feel real or whole. Outside of an aside about Joan Didion and a bit of Greek Mythology, we don’t know what Brooke is like. We rarely see Zara outside of her job, which would be an interesting factor if the film had been aware enough to comment on it. For Chris Cole, well, we get about as much of his life as we need for the plot.

If you compare this to, I don’t know maybe The Idea of You, the problem again emerges.  Solene, the main character of The Idea of You, another rich, white, artistic woman, has a fleshed-out life. We see details and imperfections that aren’t super obvious that they are there for plot reasons. A stand out for me is the Hilma af Klint poster in her office at her art gallerythat got the art history nerd in me going. 

For Brooke, we see her in a Blondie t-shirt, and we see stacks of books. There is, of course, the natural product placement; we know that Brooke drinks Casamigos tequila. Besides that, we don’t know much about her outside of the plot-necessary details: dead husband, mid-career writer, mother of Zara. The same stands for everyone else. The closest we get to details in Cole’s life is that he has a Jeff Koons-esque AT-AT in his front room implying that he likes Star Wars, but he doesn’t feel whole. None of the characters do.

Why, just why?

A Familly Affair has its good moments. You can chuckle a little, and it gets a little spicy with the whole KidmanEfron relationship, but there isn’t much that holds the film up. Outside of its muted and hollow sex appeal, the film has nothing to offer. It is the same heartless mess that its characters deride.  If you’re looking for a shallow good time, there’s a small possibility this is your movie, but I suspect a majority of this film’s views in the future will come from pirated clips on TikTok.

A Family Affair is now streaming on Netflix.

You can watch the movie at Netflix’s official site. 

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