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Why 'A Family Affair' works so well as a Netflix romcom

Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in <em>A Family Affair. </em>
Aaron Epstein
/
Netflix
Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in A Family Affair.

About seven minutes into the new Netflix romantic comedy A Family Affair, Zac Efron, playing a conceited, not-too-bright movie star who's just broken up with his girlfriend, is whining to his assistant (played by Joey King) that she needs to pick up his stuff from the ex-girlfriend's place. He left treasured items there, he explains. He left his autographed Jordans! He left his Himalayan t-shirt! And then he says, gravely, as if it shows the urgency of the mission, "I left my copy of The Courage to be Disliked." And I said, in my living room, "Ha!"

The Courage to be Disliked is a real book. It doesn't actually endorse the practice of being a jerk; it's more nuanced than that. But this character, without a pinch of self-awareness, bemoaning the disappearance of a book called The Courage to be Disliked? That's a very solid joke, very solidly delivered by Efron. He follows it up with, "I have several underwears there. And people sell those."

Eventually, the movie star, whose name is Chris, has one too many fights with the assistant, whose name is Zara, and he has to go find her to make amends. But when he goes to her house, he finds her mother, Brooke (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful widowed author who lives in the kind of gorgeous and classy house that starred in most of the best Nancy Meyers movies. (It's sharply different from Chris' house, which is equally fancy but also ugly and impractical, as seen in an effective little bit about his absurd front door.) Brooke and Chris start drinking tequila, they hit it off, and Zara, who lives at home and observes few boundaries with her mom, eventually walks in on them upstairs in Brooke's bedroom.

Zara's dismay over her mother's relationship with Chris is not about the age difference (which goes mostly undiscussed), but about the fact that she's seen Chris go through his girlfriend-dumping routine enough times to fear that her mother might get hurt. What follows in the script from Carrie Solomon is one part romance between Chris and Brooke, one part ongoing clash between Chris and Zara, and one part mother-daughter story about Zara and Brooke. And honestly, in this film from director Richard LaGravenese, it all works pretty well!

Joey King as Zara Ford and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in <em>A Family Affair. </em>
Tina Rowden / Netflix
/
Netflix
Joey King as Zara Ford and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in A Family Affair.

Some of this — particularly an older woman getting involved with a younger male celebrity — may call to mind the recent movie The Idea of You, in which Anne Hathaway fell for a boy band member played by Nicholas Galitzine. I didn't care for that movie at all, in part because it wasn't funny enough, in part because the romance was unconvincing, and in part because the ending lacked emotional resonance. (It was based on a book with a completely different ending, and it turns out you can't just take a carefully built story and flip the ending on its head and have the result make sense.) That book wasn't written to be a romcom, but was adapted and wedged into the romcom box. This, on the other hand, is meant to be one — and it shows.

Efron is a much more successful, charismatic, and (especially) funny lead than Galitzine (whom I'd liked in Red, White & Royal Blue) opposite Hathaway in The Idea of You. And it's refreshing to see Kidman happily making out with somebody, at least temporarily making her way out of the haunted-sad-person rut she's been in for the past few years. Chris' relationship with Brooke feels real and brings out nice things in them both, beginning when she explains the Icarus myth so he can understand its connections to his movie franchise, Icarus Rush, which she's never seen. He certainly seems like a dope at first ("I'm Australian." "Oh, do you know Margot Robbie?" "...No." "I do."), but as he gets comfortable, he grows on Brooke, in addition to being, you know, very hot.

All the way back in 2012, I wrote that Efron was making an interesting play to follow in the footsteps of somebody like Ryan Gosling. (At that time, in his mid-twenties, Efron was appearing in a Nicholas Sparks film.) Gosling was also once a Disney kid, and he managed to grow into a very good dramatic actor, a very good comic actor, and a very swoony romantic lead. Efron doesn't have the Oscar nominations just yet, but he was excellent in a pure dramatic role in The Iron Claw in 2023, and he's funny enough here as the willfully goofy hunk that he might have been a pretty terrific Ken if Gosling hadn't been available — or a good Fall Guy.

King is an established Netflix romcom lead herself, but she does a very nice job here, too. Besides the romance, particularly welcome is the strand of the story about Zara figuring out that the world is not all about her, even in her relationship with her mother. In a scene with her grandmother, played (skillfully as ever) by Kathy Bates, Zara starts to figure out what we all eventually must: Your parents are not only your parents, they are also human beings with lives and thoughts and wants that have nothing to do with you. She has a truth-telling moment with her best friend (Liza Koshy), too, about her problems not lying at the center of the universe, which gives the whole last act a very nice "What if somebody had forcefully told Rory Gilmore to get over herself?" quality.

Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood in <em>A Family Affair. </em>
Tina Rowden / Netflix
/
Netflix
Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood in A Family Affair.

It's too early to declare some golden age of streaming romcoms, because the ones we get are still wildly uneven, and because on cable, it's not as if they ever went away. But there's some star power here, and some budget, and some writing and directing, that suggests interest in the genre is picking up steam and getting good results.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.