I am on record as having a robust appreciation for the films of Noah Baumbach. Kicking and Screaming is a truly romantic low-budget comedy suffused with a prodigious and unforced wit. Mr. Jealousy is less well-formed but contains several deft comic sequences and some great performances, especially by Carlos Jaccot and Chris Eigeman. The Squid and the Whale was one of the best American films of 2005. But Baumbach’s new film, Margot at the Wedding, does away with the ambivalence that made Squid such a biting comedy. In place of Squid’s half-dad-half-monster, played to shambling perfection by Jeff Daniels, Margot at the Wedding gives us Nicole Kidman as Margot, Baumbach’s latest writer-parent, and Margot is 100% shrew. She’s such a horrid person that it forces Baumbach into a strange incoherence of viewpoint. There’s great, relentless bitterness in the portrait. We’re supposed to dislike Margot for her writer’s narcissism, and for the wounds she compulsively inflicts on her teenage son. But Baumbach pushes the character’s flaws to the point of outright pathology. When her sister (crazy, too) suggests that Margot has a borderline personality, I said to myself, Yes! She’s Livia Soprano! This not only confuses the film’s moral standpoint. (How blameworthy is this poor miserable creature, finally?) It also afflicts Baumbach’s writing with an uncharacteristic slackness. With no humor to balance the asperity, and with no underlying humanity to balance Margot’s selfishness, Baumbach is left with nothing to resolve. That Margot is Margot – vicious, unhappy, at once self-obsessed and un-self-aware – ends up being the whole point. As a result, there is no tension in the dialogue, none of Baumbach’s comic discipline. Nobody seems to really say anything. If you’re familiar with the bristling talk of Baumbach’s other films, you’ll realize how odd this is.
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