Review: A Family Affair

Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood, Joey King as Zara Ford and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in A Family Affair Credit - Courtesy of Tina Rowden/Netflix

Sometimes, and perhaps increasingly, the pleasure of movies lies in the small things. The congenial Netflix romantic comedy A Family Affair, written by newcomer Carrie Solomon and directed by Richard LaGravenese, a veteran director and screenwriter who knows what he’s doing, mines some territory that’s already familiar from a movie released earlier this year: An “older” single mother tumbles into an affair with a much younger man, inviting judgment and ridicule from those around her. We just saw that idea, played out rather delightfully, in The Idea of You, starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine. In A Family Affair, it’s Nicole Kidman’s successful writer Brooke Harwood who falls for full-of-himself movie star Chris Cole (Zac Efron), though there’s an additional complication: Brooke’s daughter Zara (Joey King) is Chris’ personal assistant, and she can’t stand him.

You can complain that two movies riffing on the same theme, released within a few months of one another, is perhaps one movie too many. (The idea also figures in French filmmaker Catherine Breillat’s fine erotic drama Last Summer, which premiered at Cannes in 2023 and is just now making its way into U.S. theaters.) Or you could see this mini-trend as evidence that several filmmakers are picking up the same scent from the air: women over 50 don’t want to be discarded; they want to be seen, appreciated, loved. The idea is so simple that you wonder why people haven’t been making five movies like this a year, for the past 50 years. But here we are: the older-woman-younger-man thing is still such a novelty that we almost can’t believe our eyes when we see it.

A Family Affair opens with Zara reaching the end of her rope with the childish, demanding Chris, the bulked-up and stuck-up star of a hit action-fantasy franchise. He’s in a restaurant, about to break up with a sweet, if bland, girlfriend who’s expecting a marriage proposal. His parting gift is a pair of diamond earrings—nice work if you can get it—but he doesn’t have them on his person. They’re in Zara’s bag, and she’s stuck in typically horrible Los Angeles traffic. Finally, she makes the delivery, and Chris, callous and clueless, does the deed. Zara collects him to drive him home, and he wriggles in the passenger seat clapping along to Cher’s “I Believe in Love” as it blares from the car stereo, feeling every beat in his cold, hollow, yet also undeniably rambunctious heart. Zara rolls her eyes.

Later, they argue. He fires her, or she quits, it’s hard to tell which. But Chris likes Zara, and he needs her. Hoping to get her back, he goes to her house, or, rather, the not-so-shabby house she shares with her mother, Brooke, who’s ever-so-glamorously dusting her bookshelves to the strains of Blondie’s “Dreaming” when Chris arrives. She doesn’t hear him ring the doorbell, so he walks right in—he’s a movie star, so he can do this! Even he knows it. After a few screwball moments in which she ascertains that he’s not a burglar, the two sit down on the couch and just start talking. There’s tequila involved, and one thing leads to another.

Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in A Family Affair<span class="copyright">Courtesy of Tina Rowden/Netflix</span>
Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in A Family AffairCourtesy of Tina Rowden/Netflix

You’ve certainly seen this sort of thing before, but Solomon and LaGravenese (whose resume stretches back to include deeply enjoyable romances like 1998’s Living Out Loud) aren’t so much out to freshen genre conventions as to lean on their evergreen reliability. Brooke has long been widowed. (She’s very close with her mother-in-law, played with verve by Kathy Bates.) Zara loses it when she finds out her mother is romantically involved with her terrible boss, but she must learn that the world doesn’t revolve around her.

The learning-the-lesson part is where the movie falters. The best part of A Family Affair is the windup, the scenes in which Brooke and Chris get to know each other. On their first real date, Chris asks Brooke if she’d like to go for an after-dinner walk. “Where do you walk in LA?” she asks. “New York!” he says brightly, because in the dreamworld Los Angeles, you’re never far from a soundstage. Although the repartee between Efron and Kidman is amusing enough—the two have played lovers before, in the 2012 film The Paperboy—it may take a little time to adjust to their faces. There’s been plenty of Internet chatter about Efron’s jawline, which has changed dramatically, in size and squareness, in recent years. Efron has been jaunty in brushing off speculation, claiming that he had a serious accident years ago that required his jaw to be reattached—thus the change in shape. And Kidman—well, she’s Kidman. Maybe we need to accept the reality that to be a fifty-something who can attract a thirty-something, you need to have semi-miraculously slowed the ravages of time yourself.

But that’s Hollywood for you, and this is, after all, a film that takes place unapologetically in a land of fantasy. When it sparkles, which is often, it’s perfectly enjoyable. Efron has always been a terrific actor, long before audiences began “taking him seriously,” whatever that means, in The Iron Claw. His timing is dazzling. In an early scene, he sends Zara to the grocery store for a special protein powder—he’s too famous to show his face there himself—and she gets him on the phone to make sure she’s buying the right kind. As she pushes her cart through the store, she marvels aloud at the zillion-and-one varieties of Oreos in the cookie aisle. When she gets to “strawberry shortcake,” we see Chris at home, listening on his phone, his eyes blazing like lightning bolts. “Do you want some?” Zara asks him, tentatively. “Yeah!” he says, as if he’s just become hip to one of the great wonders of the modern world. It’s doubtful the actual product will live up to that promise, but isn’t that always the way when marketing's involved? Later, he’ll find the real thing with Kidman’s Brooke. Together, the two of them are almost too unreal for words. Again, that’s Hollywood for you—a place where, in real life, age is most definitely not just a number. But we can dream, can’t we?

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