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Played by Nicole Kidman, all sculpted cheekbones and blithe venom, Margot could be the dejected, midlife, midlist-career-and-a-busted- marriage-later version of the hyperliterate post-grads in Baumbach's first feature, 1995's Kicking and Screamingpeople whose education taught them to parse others' sentences for slights. Introduced en route by train to her sister's wedding, Margot initially doesn't seem so badalthough it's an ill omen that the passenger her gangly adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais) mistakes her for is some random sourpuss.
But within moments, Mom outs herself as a Rommel of passive aggressionthe kind who can accuse other parents of denying their child's autism, advise her sister to stay out of Williamsburg because it's "for the young," or gaze sadly at her son and sigh, "You used to be more graceful." "We're supporting her," Margot says firmly of attending her sister's nuptials, of which she doesn't approve. "I thought she wasn't speaking to you," Claude says. "I wasn't speaking to her," she corrects him, "but I'm over it now."
Their destination is a Long Island family home, Chekhov by way of Cheever, where the happy event is to take place. The introduction of sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) typifies the movie's racing pulse: She's shown standing still as Margot arrivesthe cinematic inhaling of a deep breathand smack!, a jarring cut catches her in mid-stride, shoving her toward a reunion she clearly dreads. (Editor Carol Littleton's unobtrusive jump-cutting sharpens the senses throughout.) As her fiancé, lumpen music critic manqué Malcolm (Jack Black), punches up the vows with a little levity ("Not jokey," he explains defensively, "more character-based humor"), the sisters settle in for a weekend of rapidly deepening anxiety.
As in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach's chosen milieu is the company of educated, intelligent, empathetically blinkered New Yorkers who know how to use words for everything except concern. He writes dialogue that genuinely laceratesit doesn't just lash the intended target, it lays open the speaker as well. "When you were a baby, I wouldn't let anyone else hold you," Margot coos to Claude, setting him up for the kill: "I think maybe that was a mistake." The scene in which Pauline shows Margot her (storage) room, acted by Kidman and Leigh with a seismograph's sensitivity to shifting emotional ground, sketches a lifetime of sibling rivalry in just a few surgically cutting lines, culminating in Pauline's desperate topper: "I've become a really good cook."
It gets worse, as Margot sloughs off her idealized husband (an atypically studly John Turturro), blabbermouths a secret sure to upend Pauline's household, and voices at every opportunity how certain she is that Pauline is marrying beneath her. So why should we give a damn about a character this toxic? A solemn truth about family is that it's almost impossible to hate people we know this well. Margot, in Kidman's compellingly unlikable performance, is every relative whose motives and utterances we've picked apart on the drive home from some misbegotten holiday, blissfully unaware that she is doing the same to us.
Baumbach draws Margot, Pauline, Claude, and the surrounding characters with a wealth of novelistic detail, creating a denser, gamier, and more complex sense of family life than American movies typically dare. Sometimes, perhaps, the detail is too novelistic and schematica literal family tree with rotting roots is as metaphorically on-the-nose as the emotional Samsonite of his collaborator Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited. But the pseudo-doc immediacy of Baumbach's direction diverts us from any obviousness in the construction, wisely emphasizing the concrete over the symbolic. In this, he's helped immensely by the mottled palette and over-the-shoulder intensity of Harris Savides's camerawork, which turns a shallow depth of field into existential near-panic.
When Squid and the Whale came out, Baumbach was branded a whiny narcissist in some quartersa sneak thief ransacking his own broken home for self-serving materialand some critics at the Toronto film festival this year took Margot as a scathing matricidal affront. If we insist on reading the movie as autobiography, it would seem that Margota writer who plunders her family troubles for a New Yorker story and faces the musicis more a directorial surrogate, and the movie an act of penance. But that just reduces one of the most perceptive films of this year to inside baseball. As a stroke of luck, this blast of homecoming claustrophobia is being released for the holidays, when it may prove therapeutic. Bring the family. Or better yet, leave them.
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