Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood and Zac Efron as Chris...

Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in Netflix's "A Family Affair." Credit: Netlix/Aaron Epstein

MOVIE "A Family Affair"

WHERE Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT For Zara (Joey King), few things could be worse than working as the personal assistant of movie star Chris Cole (Zac Efron). The errands, the sudden demands, the fake emergencies: none of them further the 24-year-old's career aspirations and all of them wear her down.

But then, for poor Zara, it does gets worse: Chris and Zara's mother Brooke (Nicole Kidman), an acclaimed author, begin a romantic relationship.

The veteran Richard LaGravenese (“The Last Five Years”) directs “A Family Affair,” a Netflix romantic comedy co-starring the always wonderful Kathy Bates as Zara's grandmother.

MY SAY Every time “A Family Affair” shows an inclination to head in the right direction, to go somewhere edgy and sharp and insightful, it promptly pulls back. 

This story deserves better than benign sitcom territory, where all the laughs seem designed to hit certain marks, where everyone is kind and well-meaning and a bit misunderstood. It's crying out to say something interesting about Hollywood and its values, and to complicate the usual picture in its story of a young heartthrob romancing a decades-older woman.

The pieces were in place to do this right: Efron is a better actor than one might have long-ago assumed, King has real screen presence, and the best moments in the movie overall arrive courtesy of Kidman. She can elevate even the most inane material to a place of meaning and impact, to suggest a world of complications where there might otherwise have been none. Throw Bates into the mix, and it can never be said that the filmmakers missed in the casting process.

But they're working within a world that has been aggressively flattened. There's no visual style beyond a pedestrian collection of medium shots and little inclination to push boundaries. The romance develops exactly as one might have expected, including a romantic night out on a studio backlot. Zara's reaction to it seems dictated less by reality than by whatever emotion the screenplay requires at a particular moment.

The same inconsistency defines the depiction of Chris and his movie star life. The picture flicks at something worthwhile in its portrayal of his deep and inherent loneliness; he has no real friends and nowhere he can go on his own, remaining ensconced in his fancy mansion. At one poignant moment, he admits to having no idea what a grocery store is like. 

You can see why Brooke would fall for him, beyond his handsomeness and despite his crazy life: he can be sweet and kind and seems like a great listener.

But when the movie needs him to act like an egotist, to make Zara speed a pair of “breakup earrings” to him for a different woman (pre-Brooke), to become the most awful version of a deluded A-lister, he's all too happy to comply.

It adds up to a movie that lacks the courage to go where it should, settling for the safe and familiar terrain of comfort food with something better and more substantial within reach.

BOTTOM LINE The actors give it their all, but it's a movie you've seen a million times before.

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