Review: Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron Fail the RomCom Spark Test in Otherwise Charming, Clever A Family Affair

It would seem the romcom is having a moment. Not that it's ever really gone away, of course. But in the post-Nancy Meyers era (she's still very much alive, just not releasing films like she used to), no one has quite been able to crack the code on contemporary, light-hearted American romance in the movies. Many have tried, many—save perhaps the recent The Idea of You—have failed.

Landing solidly in the "meh" category of the genre's latest iteration is this week's Netflix entry A Family Affair, written by newcomer Carrie Solomon and directed by Richard LaGravenese (The Last Five Years, Beautiful Creatures). Credit to Solomon whose script is actually quite clever, navigating well the narrative landmines of modern life (all of us attached to our cell phones; most relationships starting on dating apps) and delivering a few genuine laughs along the way. What's missing from the story of a young woman (Joey King) whose movie star boss (Zac Efron) falls for her much-older mother (Nicole Kidman) is that undefinable spark that separates a new classic from a forgettable weekend stream: chemistry.

Within the film's first ten minutes, Solomon has sharply set up our premise: Zara (King) is working long and thankless hours for her famous boss, Chris Cole (Efron), a playboy who can't seem to hold down either a relationship or a decent role. Zara's mother, Brooke (Kidman) is a once-prolific and award-winning writer who hasn't published in ages, a fact we discover while she's talking with Leila (Kathy Bates), her editor and mother-in-law, about her struggles since her husband, Leila's son Charlie, died. After a particularly bad day at work, Zara quits in a huff and when Chris comes to the the house where she lives with her mother (truly, Nancy Meyers would be proud of this place), she's out running errands but Brooke is home et voila: a romcom meet-cute for the ages.

Except it's not. This one contrived moment makes what follows if not less enjoyable, at least less genuine and therefore harder to root for overall. Kidman and Efron fawn over each other in flirty, silly ways; while she steps away from the chores she was doing when he arrived to change into something more presentable, he pours them drinks. Strong drinks. They chat and flirt some more and soon they're ripping each other's clothes off. Literally. It's a stretch, even for these modern-day fairy tales. The pairing here is also an exercise in suspending disbelief, as it just never quite makes sense why or how these two fit together; for all the film's clever one-liners and even a relatively authentic mother-daughter arc for Kidman and King, the underlying absence of any real passion between our main lovers is glaring and unfortunate.

Saving the day in the charm department is King, whose amibitious but lost and floundering 24-year-old Zara is as relatable as they come, vacillating between bouts of impassioned conviction and debilitating imposter syndrome, all the while trying to come to terms with her mother's new relationship and what it means for her own personal and professional life. Ultimately, this is the film's most compelling storyline: her evolution from an immature Gen Z-er with daddy issues to a young woman capable of speaking her mind and opening up her worldview beyond herself. If the filmmakers intended for Zara's character to simply be a foil to the movie's main romance, the results have been slightly inverted here, as by the time Brook and Chris have done their fair share of romantic montages and will-they-won't-they back and forths, it all seems like a bit of an afterthought.

A Family Affair isn't unwatchable by any means (as many of its recent contemporaries are). In another era, it might've had a successful weekend or two at the box office, a marquee title for date nights across the country for all the couples looking for something to do after dinner. In 2024, it's a slight delight that may not end up in the canon of genre classics but has enough on offer to make it a worthy stream from the couch after take-out from your favorite local spot.

A Family Affair is now streaming on Netflix.

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Lisa Trifone