by Marc Glassman
Margot at the Wedding. Noam Baumbach, director & scriptwriter. Harris Savides, camera; Carol Littleton, editor. Starring: Nicole Kidman (Margot), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pauline), Jack Black (Malcolm), Zane Pais (Claude), John Turturro (Jim), Ciaran Hinds (Dick), Flora Cross (Ingrid), Halley Feiffer (Maisy)
The Mist. Frank Darabont, director & script based on a story by Stephen King. Starring: Thomas Jane (David Drayton), Marcia Gay Harden (Mrs. Carmody), Laurie Holden (Amanda Dunfries), Andre Braugher (Brent Norton), Toby Jones (Ollie), Nathan Gamble (Billy)
Margot at the Wedding
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Noam Baumbach, the Oscar nominated scriptwriter and director of The Squid and the Whale and the new Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh comic melodrama Margot at the Wedding, would undoubtedly enjoy having a Tolstoy quotation appear at the beginning of a review of his film work. It’s just the right mix of arrogance, worldliness, pretentiousness and sensitivity to suit the son of avant-garde novelist Jonathan Baumbach and film critic Georgia Brown. Defiantly a New Yorker and an intellectual, Baumbach may well turn out to be his generation’s version of Woody Allen—funny, sophisticated and, above all, his own man.
In sharp contrast to Squid’s squabbling teenaged brothers, who are in denial of their parents’ breakup, Baumbach’s new film concentrates on the impending nuptials of Pauline (Leigh) and her sister Margot’s (Kidman) abrasive reaction to it. A sophisticated albeit neurotic short story writer for The New Yorker, Margot is horrified that her sister Pauline is getting married to Jack Black’s Malcolm. “He’s like the guys we rejected when we were 16,” says Margot to Pauline of her betrothed at one point. And, in fact, Malcolm does fit that devastating description.
Both sisters have spent their lives in pursuit of excellence and the outré. Margot has parlayed her talent into a modest but palpable success as a New Yorker writer, but it’s been at the expense of her personal life. Her sister, husband and even her son Claude have been grist for her prose-writing mill and Margot would have had it no other way. Pauline, by contrast, never had her sister’s willfulness and ambition, or her talent. She’s had to make do with hand-me-downs, from clothes to lovers. So when the two meet before the wedding, sparks are bound to fly.
As the sisters, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman are riveting—absolutely believable as life-long sparring partners. With her plaintive eyes, defiant lips and vulnerable body, Leigh conveys the depths of a life played out in the shadows of a more talented and beautiful sister. As the “sacred monster” Margot, Kidman is suitably neurotic, willful and mesmerizing. No one knows whether to embrace Margot or smother her. She crushes people, especially those who love here, without even realizing it.
Margot views herself as a victim. Perhaps she is—but so too are Pauline, Malcolm and Claude. All are trying to make sense of their lives, attempting to find a place—even a room—of their own.
Margot at the Wedding is intended to be a tragicomedy like Squid. Baumbach tries his best but the material proves impossible for him to shape into a whole. Leigh and Kidman are brilliant, but not funny; there is no sense of the mockery at the core of Jeff Daniels’ performance as the father in Squid. Only Jack Black seems to get the joke—and perhaps he’s too amusing, too comic a figure.
As a slightly self-indulgent work on narcissistic bohemians, Margot at the Wedding feels more like Leigh’s The Anniversary Party than Squid and the Whale. Perhaps the film is really owned by Baumbach’s new wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. If so, that would explain why this ambitious, striking film is ultimately confusing, not compelling. Though there is much to admire in Margot, it is ultimately a failure.
It’s third time unlucky for Frank Darabont, the director and scriptwriter of the huge ‘90s hits The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, both adaptations of stories by Stephen King. The Mist, yet another King inspired effort, is hardly in the same league as those earlier, Oscar nominated works. Darabont has moved into more typical King terrain. Here, he’s made a horror film, pure and simple, which barely resembles his previous essays on character, guilt and redemption.
Set on the picturesque New England shoreline, classic King landscape, The Mist moves swiftly from the pastoral to the preternaturally perverse in its evocation of nature gone awry. After a devastating storm, the Draytons—hunky artist Dad and clingy son Billy—depart from home in search of provisions accompanied by their neighbour, Brent Norton, an obstreperous big-city lawyer. Arriving in the nearby Norman Rockwell-esque small American town, the trio barely reach the huge local grocery store before a grey eerie fog rolls in, enshrouding everything in its wake.
That’s where they will stay—along with those others who survive—for the majority of the film because, well, there are monsters in The Mist. A weird creature with tentacles is the first to attack the heavily populated supermarket, through its loading dock. Although Drayton tries to fight off the huge creature, a young store clerk is carried off, screaming in terror. Soon afterward, the unbelieving Brent leads an expedition of doubters out of the safety of the store, never to return. That night, the flying bugs arrive—huge grey bats, freakish mutant birds and things that resemble pterodactyls…
Though Darabont tries to make more of these threats, his plot becomes relentlessly generic. Proceedings quickly devolve into the humans versus the aliens, a horror trope for the past 55 years. Like many such tales, the environment is blamed for the problems, along with amoral scientists and their military enforcers who helped to conduct the experiments that produced the monsters.
Worse, Darabont has peopled The Mist with stock characters, not the more three dimensional kind seen in Shawshank and The Green Mile. Resisting the creatures are the stalwart Drayton, a pretty schoolteacher named Amanda, a couple of wise New England old-timers and the responsible members of the grocery store staff. Opposing them is a group of Christian fundamentalists led by Mrs. Carmody; as the raving evangelist, leading a pack of ravers, Marcia Gay Harden delivers the worst performance I’ve ever seen by an Oscar winner.
Rather than the horror of the film, let’s consider the terrifying shambles of Darabont’s career. After the devastating failure of The Majestic, his only non-King effort, the writer-director must have decided that a retreat to more familiar territory was the best strategy. But this effort isn’t heart-felt, like Shawshank or The Green Mile. Frank Darabont has made a lifeless, commercially calculated film. Give The Mist a miss.