Margot at the Wedding
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Reviewed by Sean Burns
Opens Wed., Nov. 21
Watching writer/director Noah Baumbach's 2005 hit The Squid and the Whale, a brazenly autobiographical account of his parents' divorce, I recall thinking Jeff Daniels' harrumphing, hatefully passive-aggressive academic dad was the best movie monster of the year, and then immediately trying to imagine what this sorry kid could ever do to make things straight with his old man.
The answer, as best I can figure, is Margot at the Wedding, which might as well be called: Squid 2: It's Mommy's Turn. Nicole Kidman stars as the worst mother since Medea, or at least since Livia Soprano. A hopelessly neurotic bundle of nerves, she drags her androgynous, deeply confused adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais) along for an ill-advised reunion with estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at their former childhood home on a gray Northeastern island.
A semifamous writer who cannibalizes family secrets as fodder for New Yorker short stories (Baumbach's obviously working through a bit of his own guilt here), Margot is a hideous creation, incapable of opening her mouth without casually insulting everybody else in the room, and somehow dragging every conversation back around into her own solipsistic circle of self-aggrandizement. Kidman plays her with admirable gusto, and without any of the protective ironic distance that movie stars often like to shore up between themselves and such unappealing roles.
Gratingly unpleasant yet often undeniably hilarious, Baumbach's film mines the grim comedy of embarrassment to a point where you're squirming even harder than you're laughing. Abruptly cutting in and out of scenes at unexpected moments with a jittery hand-held camera that's always zoomed in a little too close for comfort, Margot at the Wedding has been deviously constructed to keep you off-kilter and expecting the worst, mimicking the frazzled emotional states of these desperately unhappy characters.
For all its pleasures, Squid struck me as a bit overdetermined, endlessly revised and rewritten until the air felt sucked out of some scenes. This follow-up is a bit looser and shaggier, and the willingness to follow tangential moments is refreshing, even if I doubt we actually needed to see Leigh shitting her pants. The cast is uniformly excellent, save for a wildly miscast Jack Black, who still can't shed his sketch comic instincts, and thus saunters through the movie with one eyebrow raised at all times, as if actually committing to such an uncool character would somehow damage his street cred.
Okay, so about two-thirds of Americans now oppose the Iraq war--about the same proportion that opposed the war in Vietnam four years after it started. And a good portion of those Americans also now realize that Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction and that George W. Bush is a dirty rotten fibber. Same as a load of Americans back in the '60s and '70s figured out that the Bay of Tonkin incident--the pretext under which the U.S. invaded Vietnam--was also a lie.
Does this reviewer sound tired? Jaded even? So does this Sean Penn-narrated documentary. It points out, with great patience and precision, how every war starts with the Pentagon and the president lying through their teeth. And how the so-called liberal media eagerly and unquestioningly repeat these lies. And how journalists who attempt objective reporting are fired.
Then comes the bombing and the images of maimed and slaughtered civilians, downplayed by a lickspittle American media more interested in the waffling of macho reporters telling us how brave and wonderful their new soldier friends are.
And then the war drags on and on. And the public turn against it as they once again realize they've been sold a crock. And the media are all like--OMG! They lied to us! Again!
And then a few years later it starts up all over again.
But hey, hope springs eternal. Maybe the next time some lying scumbag in the White House tries to send kids off to be maimed and mutilated (because some tinpot dictator is the new Hitler, or because not going to war would mean the end of the world as we know it), the American public won't wait nearly half a decade before crying bullshit. Maybe the media will do its damn job and rip the tissue of lies apart before a single child is dismembered, before the first body bag gets filled, before the vet hospital wards fill with the mentally and physically crippled.
War Made Easy is a well crafted, well meaning, incredibly well researched but ultimately frustrating film. What are the odds it'll be remade four years into the next war? And the one after that?
Israeli director Eytan Fox's last film, the surprise hit Walk on Water, critiqued its homeland's suffocating masculinity by having its Mossad-agent protagonist suffer from a tear-duct deficiency. His follow-up The Bubble presents star-crossed love between an Israeli and a Palestinian. Clearly Fox is out to piss off fundamentalists and those allergic to hambone allegory in one fell swoop.
Those fearing a crass reduction of the I-P rift--like the one that sank the recent O Jerusalem--need not; the gruesome mechanics of Fox's plot don't kick in till the film's third act, leaving plenty of room for action based more in character than a need to simplify a chaotic situation to a mere message.
The Bubble opens with a checkpoint tragedy that acts almost as a short film. Fox follows two of its participants--sensitive music store clerk Ohad Knoller, who unwillingly pulls National Guard duty on the weekends, and equally sensitive Palestinian Yousef Sweid--back to Tel Aviv, where the two proceed to get it on. Knoller is part of the new generation of young, hedonistic, progressively minded Israelis, and he and his roommates embrace Sweid, giving him a fake Israeli-sounding name and pouring their beliefs into fomenting a "Rave for Peace"--a beach party for young Israelis and Palestinians.