Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2007 3:10 pm 
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Neurotic chaos in the Hamptons

Baumbach was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay for his amusing, spot-on study of a New York literary intellectual family in crisis, The Squid and the Whale. As befits one who received accolades and some little box office success, he has moved forward with similar themes and a better budget, and was able to enlist not only better known actors but a famous cinematographer, Harris Savides, and a renowned costume designer, Ann Roth. Baumbach has also moved along in time, as it were. If The Squid and the Whale was a parental breakup arguably considered from the viewpoint of a teenage boy, this family analysis has more of an adult sibling focus--though there's a boy on hand who's important. More limited in its time-span than Squid, Margot is more complex in its specifics and its conversational delineation of neurotics at play. Just about every scene is a relationship meltdown. It's a wonder nobody comes to violence. In fact one character does get kicked in the chest, and a big tree falls down doing some damage.

Baumbach himself may understand what all this is about, but the choppily edited and shot piece has too little dramatic structure (despite being very much like a play) to go anywhere or make much overall sense. Despite good buzz from some quarters and urban (especially New York) fans, the young director may lose with Margot a sizable slice of the credibility he gained with Squid.

Pauline (Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh), who lives on the family house on an island, is about to be married, for the second time, to out of work artist Malcolm (Jack Black). Her sister Margot (Nicole Kidman) comes with her young adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais). Ingrid (Flora Cross), Pauline's daughter, is there, and a playmate for Claude. Margot is a well-known short-story writer, and it turns out she's scheduled for a reading at a local bookstore with a former flame, Dick (Ciaran Hinds), whom she seems to want to get together with again. Dick's sexy daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer) is also on hand. Margot has told her husband Jim (John Turturro) not come for the wedding.

Pauline and Margot haven't been getting on well for years, but they approach this occasion with the misguided assumption that they're still nonetheless each other's best friends and that things are going to be rich and consoling.

But as soon as the good-looking and accomplished, if thoroughly neurotic Margot lays eyes on the fat layabout Malcolm, she goes to work on Pauline to cancel the wedding--even though Pauline reveals she's pregnant. There is a family of nasty neighbors, the Voglers, who want the big tree in the backyard to come down. Its roots are spreading to their property, it's rotting, and it's poisoning their plants, they say.

Margot wants Claude to become more independent, but neither of them is ready for that yet. Nobody seems to be ready for anything, relationship-wise. This is about the only thing that clearly emerges.

One of the problems is in the conception of the main characters. This is not the anguished, edgy Leigh we've often seen in the past but a mellow woman, and despite lack of accomplishment and temper tantrums (which he credibly argues are justified in this crazy situation) Malcolm may have been a sweet guy who clicks very well with Pauline. Margot seems to make trouble for everybody, beginning wit her son. But since she's the most accomplished family member, it's a bit hard to know how to take her. Complex characters are fine, but nobody in this piece is going in a consistent direction. And this is equally true of the action. Was the wedding meant to have a meltdown before it ever happened?

This is a slice of life in more ways than one. Scenes are constantly cut off and linked to the next by jump cuts, an effect meant to be vérité and sophisticated that tends at times merely to look sloppy. Though Baumbach says he got exactly the look he wanted, it's suprising that the Savides of Elephant and Zodiac would give us so many shots that are seriously underlit. Again, the effect hovers between original and amateurish.

All this is a shame, because all the actors do great work. The young newcomer who plays Margot's son Claude, Zane Pais, is indeed miraculously natural and believable. Leigh and Kidman do some of their best work, and Jack Black has perfect pitch in every line. There's no doubt that weeks of careful rehearsals on the set, in the house, helped the cast work so well together, and Baumbach knew what he wanted. But it reads as a series of vignettes rather than a film.

An official selection of the New York Film Festival, October 2007. Present at the press Q&A: Baumbach, Leigh, Kidman, Turturo. Moderator: J. Hoberman.

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