Avoid that cringe that is Nicole Kidman's "A Family Affair," which wastes the efforts of Joey King

An older woman with a daughter dates a famous younger man in Netflix's comedy, but "The Idea of You" did it better

Published June 28, 2024 12:15PM (EDT)

A Family Affair (Netflix)
A Family Affair (Netflix)

The frothy rom-com, “A Family Affair,” is another addition in the growing genre of older woman/younger male celebrity romance movies. (See also: “The Idea of You.”) Alas, director Richard LaGravenese’s film, written by Carrie Solomon, tries to be awkwardly amusing with its plot — about a mother dating her daughter’s movie star boss — but the cringe viewers will feel is every painful contrivance.  

There is little chemistry between Kidman and Efron.

Zara Ford (Joey King of “The Kissing Booth” movies) is the long-suffering personal assistant to egotistical action star Chris Cole (Zac Efron). After one too many humiliations, Zara quits while Chris is doing miniband crunches. The scene gives King’s character some self-respect and Efron the opportunity to display his muscles along with his aptitude for physical humor as Chris struggles to chase after Zara.  

After a heated exchange, Chris wants to apologize — in part because he needs Zara to help him; he is about to begin shooting the next installment of his “Icarus Rush” action franchise. A running joke describes the film as “Die Hard” meets “Miracle on 34th Street,” meets “Speed,” but the gag is not funny even once.

Arriving at Zara’s home, however, Chris instead encounters Zara’s mom, Brooke Harwood (Nicole Kidman), an award-winning writer, who is cleaning in a Blondie tour shirt and shorts as the band’s song, “Dreaming,” plays on her turntable. Changing into something more — for lack of a better word — matronly, she and Chris start day drinking tequila, which leads to some kissing, and them ending up in bed together. 

And, of course!, Zara comes home and catches Brooke and Chris in flagrante delicto. This leads to her suffering a physical accident and getting treated by a pediatrician in the film’s most excruciating scene. Children and Zara’s doctor are all starstruck by Chris, and Zara has to beg for attention. One half expects her to receive a lollipop to soothe her. While catching her mom “banging boots” with her boss is a lot for Zara to take in, viewers may need to pause “A Family Affair” not to absorb the shock of this highly telegraphed moment, but to recover from suspending their disbelief. 

Questions abound: Why is 24-year-old Zara seeing a pediatrician? Does she not have a proper doctor? (Apparently not.) Has Brooke never met Chris, seen any of his movies, or heard how difficult he has been as a boss in the two years Zara has been working for him? (Apparently not.) Has Chris made several “Icarus Rush” films and never heard about the legend of Icarus? (Apparently not, but thankfully, Brooke is a writer and has two copies of a mythology book to educate him.) And why is Brooke cleaning? Her Architectural Digest home is practically spotless. 

But back to the mediocre “A Family Affair.” 

Recall, Zara is aghast at this situation between Brooke and Chris, but she agrees to go back to work for Chris because he is promoting her to Associate Producer on his new film. In return, Zara asks Chris and Brooke not to date. They agree, but Brooke sneaks out to see Chris who enchants her with a dinner in a private restaurant and takes her on a tour through a soundstage. Brooke, in response, acts like a moony 16-year-old, not a woman who is 16 years Chris’ senior. Brooke also lies to Zara, hoping to keep her movie star romance with her boss on the down low.

A Family AffairA Family Affair (Netflix)One of the things romance movies do — and the best ones do very well — is capture the magic between the couple and let viewers fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other. (See “Roman Holliday.”) But there is little chemistry between Kidman and Efron, even as they participate in the hackneyed lovers-at-the-beach montage LaGravenese includes here.

Another momentary pause for reflection: Does anyone really think Chris and Brooke are going to spend their time at the beach playing backgammon and doing jigsaw puzzles together? Moreover, is anyone who saw “The Paperboy” not going to flash on her immortal line, “If anyone is going to piss on him it’s going to be me!,” while watching Kidman and Efron play lovers? 

Meanwhile, Zara is frustrated not only by her mother’s relationship with her boss, but that his “Die Hard” meets “Miracle on 34th Street,” meets “Speed,” script needs a rewrite. What irks Zara is that Chris asks Brooke for edits rather than Zara’s sassy friend Stella (Sherry Cola, underused). Zara’s exasperation expands exponentially when her grandmother Leila (Kathy Bates) — who is Brooke’s literary editor as well as her mother-in-law (because why not?) — invites Chris for Christmas at her cabin. He turns on his charm offensive, prompting another inappropriate moment featuring Leila confiding to Brooke that she wants to see Chris naked. 

Even the fantasy of a movie star romance is not particularly fantastic.

“A Family Affair” is often uncomfortable, but it gets worse, becoming more and more strained when Zara sees a jewelry box that causes her to jump to a conclusion that is both incorrect and damaging. Zara also becomes incensed when Brooke compares Chris to Zara’s late father. Even a comedic scene where Zara tells Chris what she really thinks of him under the guise of translating a French director’s (Sara Baskin) notes on his film set is forced and unfunny. 

There could have been some real heart in the central love triangle that balances Zara’s work and family loyalties, but every plot point feels artificial. The film panders to the lowest common denominator, milking gags out of sitcomic situations such as Chris explaining that he has not gone to the supermarket for 10 years because he’s too famous. Cue supermarket scene.

The film is watchable because King exudes pluckiness and remains endearing even when she is being told how insufferable she is. As Chris, Efron tries to generate laughs, singing along (badly) to Cher’s “Believe” in the car, or bantering with Zara, but his performance is too broad to be effective. Chris complains about how difficult it is to be him, and how he has no real friends, but he is a complete jerk, and Efron doubles down on that rather than make Chris a sweet, sensitive guy who can steal Brooke’s heart. As Brooke, Kidman has a better rapport with King than Efron. Her mother/daughter scenes provide the best moments in the film, though that is damning with faint praise. And Kathy Bates provides the film’s wisest observation when she says, “No great tryst started with someone being rational.”

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Most viewers watching “A Family Affair” are not worried about realism, but even the fantasy of a movie star romance is not particularly fantastic. This film is lazy and uninspired. The Lifetime channel delivers these kinds of romantic movies with more charisma and heart.  

“A Family Affair” wants to be comfort food, but it feels like stale leftovers. 

“A Family Affair” drops on Netflix June 28.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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