Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
So your career kind of flamed out after the early promise of Kicking and Screaming. But don’t despair: life is full of second chances. Hanging around the New Yorker and moving amongst the literati got you a new benefactor: you hooked up with Wes Anderson and co-wrote his first disappointing film (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Anderson used his considerable industry juice to get your little autobiographical indie comeback film made. And lo and behold, it worked: The Squid and the Whale was the kind of movie America doesn’t seem to make anymore. It was painfully realistic, it was set in a non-obvious time and place (Park Slope, 1986), it was about smart, articulate people who actually read books and take movies seriously and talk about them in their everyday life. It was good enough to be a sleeper indie hit and promising enough for critics to optimistically hope that you might be the next Woody Allen—at least insofar as there can ever be another Woody Allen in our anti-intellectual, comic-book adaptation world.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not actually talking about you (unless Noah Baumbach is reading this—and now that I think about it, he does seem like the kind of guy who would Google himself and read obscure reviews of his movies).
So assuming Noah is reading this, here’s the question: what do you do next?
And here’s the answer: Margot at the Wedding.
Baumbach’s follow-up to his comeback film, not surprisingly, finds him giving us more of what worked so well in The Squid and the Whale. It’s about very articulate dysfunctional families on the East Coast (God forbid anyone in movies would ever suggest anyone’s bought a serious book west of the Hudson River). At the center of the family is another monumentally egotistical writer who casually destroys the self-confidence of everyone around them on a daily basis without consciously realizing what they’re doing. This time the writer is a woman, Margot, played by Nicole Kidman. Her primary victim is her awkward, androgynous, pubertical son, Claude, her less successful sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh, your wife in real life (again, only if you’re Noah Baumbach)), her sister’s fiancé (Jack Black, in one of those cellulite-and-all arthouse performances), and her sort-of competing lovers (the briefly-seen John Turturro and Ciaran Hines, who played HBO’s Julius Caeser on the first season of Rome).
Baumbach gives us a new color palette and setting for Margot. Rather than the curiously warm blues of the home-y, cluttered Brooklyn rowhouses in Squid, we get the cold, washed-out beaches of, um—the Hamptons? (I’m not an East Coaster, so I don’t know the specific East Coast beach resort community this is set on, but it’s an island, and for pop cultural purposes, it’s the Hamptons). The characters and tone of Margot are roughly commensurate to this shift in the filmstock’s icy temperature. Kidman’s Margot is an absolute monster, a wrecking ball of intellectual narcissism. She only bothers putting the sheerest veils of passive-agressiveness over her judgmental eviscerations of the character and life-choices of everyone around her, while ignoring her many shortcomings (as long as they’re not intellectual or artistic, they don’t bother a person like Margot). Baumbach is great at the speaking rhythms of self-involved artist types—having grown up amongst them and presumably being one himself—and it’s queasily fascinating to watch how Kidman and—to a lesser extent—everyone else cruelly tears down the necessary fictions people tell about themselves to strive towards some kind of existential happiness.
There’s a scene early in the movie where Jack Black, wearing nothing but white briefs, looks at himself in a mirror and complains to his wife that his balls are longer than his penis. He’s shot under a clinical light that shows you every roll of disgusting roll of fat on the usually pleasantly-portly Black’s body. It’s meant to make you cringe and laugh at the same time—and not a laugh that you feel good about having. This pretty much sums up every other scene in the movie. It’s simultaneously funny and grotesque, offering an uncomfortably honest portrayal of personal, everyday moments we normally don’t see in American movies. You don’t walk away from watching a scene like this feeling very good about yourself, but there is an aftertaste of exhilaration that you saw something different, something striving towards a sort of awkward authenticity most other filmmakers seemed to have given up trying to achieve sometime around 1979.
If you’re a reasonably adventurous filmgoer who once in a while enjoys movies that are not the least bit condescending to the audience and actually assumes that you’re an adult, you’re going to want to see Margot and continue following the trajectory of Baumbach’s career. He seems to have found a comfortable niche for himself: as long as he keeps up the aura of critical respectability around him, he’ll be able to draw fairly big names who want to stretch their acting muscles and move beyond the Hollywood artifice they’re usually stuck working in (and Kidman and Black are by far the biggest names he’s ever worked with) and churn out these micro-budgeted autopsies of the narcissistic soul. It’s pretty evident with Margot, however, that he’s going to have to change things up at least once in a while. While painfully realistic in a lot of ways, Margot–the character at the center of the movie—is aggressively, almost militaristically unpleasant to spend time with. You never see the times when her wicked wit and intelligent opinions make someone like her a person people want to be around, despite her many, obvious personality defects. That ineradicable part of us part of us—even the adults—who demand at least a modicum of escape from our workaday lives when we go to the movies will only put up with so many Margot at the Weddings before we realize that if we’re 100% sure we’re going to walk out of the theater feeling worse than when we walked in—even if we’ve seen something crafted with intelligence and humor—eventually, we’re going to stop going.