If you think your own family life is rough and you’re looking for a way to feel better about yourself, man, do I have a couple of films for you. Both come from writer-director Noah Baumbach who, with his recent career moves, has taken over for Todd Solondz (“Happiness”) as King of dysfunctional family films. A couple of years ago, Baumbach veered into this arena with “The Squid and the Whale” which set a new standard for divorced families in crisis. Now he’s out with “Margot at the Wedding” where he raises the bar even higher by making his characters even more despicable examples of human frailty and dysfunction. It’s a good trend Smack for us. Is Baumbach digging deeper and becoming more powerful with his latest reflections, or did he have the tone right originally and now he’s going in directions that will leave his audience cold?
In “Margot at the Wedding,” a son (Zane Paris) is made the unknowing victim of a dysfunctional adult relationship – while not divorced yet, certainly on its way – and once again, the child is let into the dark shadows of not only the mother’s (Nicole Kidman) soul, but perhaps her soullessness – even more disturbing. Here, it’s Jack Black who plays the role of a completely selfish, ego-driven, lust- consumed father figure.
We all know that every family is dysfunctional. There is no ideal family, anywhere, anyplace and, perhaps, at any time. At least in films and TV during the last decade. But does Baumbach have to dig so deep into neurosis, that he doesn’t allow for even the smallest bit of true humanity to arise in his adult characters? Nicole Kidman’s Margot, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Pauline and Jack Black’s Malcolm are all driven by inner demons so utterly devoid of reality that they look like bad versions of an even worse “Saturday Night Live” Skit. Margot and her son, Claude, attend the upcoming wedding of her sister, Pauline, to her maladjusted fiancée, Malcolm, despite neither sister sharing much compassion, affection or even tolerance for the other. Along the way, we find Black’s Malcolm to be a juvenile, slop monster of a man-child prone to diddling babysitters and jumping into sex whenever he can’t articulate an emotion or thought. So much for the male role model. During a weekend of family secrets divulged that are neither shocking or memorable, we are treated to one emotional beating after another until the bus pulls out of town – literally – with only the survivors on it.
The Defending Champion
In “The Squid and the Whale,” a couple (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney) divorce, wreaking havoc on their children and laying bear the true adage, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” We get a self absorbed, narcissistic father and an unthinking, though well-intentioned, mother who talks to her children as her friends, letting them into her own dark shadows of the soul. Neither parent is doing their job very well, that’s for sure.
For my money, “The Squid and the Whale” was arguably the best film of 2005. Not only did it translate beautifully the aftermath of a divorce on the two children of said divorce, but also on the parents. Based on Baumbach’s own life, his insights and dialogue are revelatory not only in terms of understanding the true turmoil of the victims of a dysfunctional family, but also in their inability to articulate their thoughts and emotions. Baumbach translates their turmoil into bizarre, sometimes heartbreaking and always unpredictable actions that tell you how deep the pain goes in all members of this family. The father, Daniels, makes as many ridiculous choices as Black does in “Margot”, but his choices are understood, laying open a festering wound not easily healable by any of his actions. The same with Linney as the mother. She is perfectly imperfect and truly loving in her own unthinking way. Perhaps as dangerous as Kidman in “Margot” but nowhere near as unfeeling. You can forgive her indiscretions if for no other reason that she doesn’t even realize they’re indiscretions. Ultimately the film belongs to their sons, Owen Kline and Jesse Essenberg. They are completely believable and simply wonderful as they struggle with their own sadness and anger, never ringing a false note. Baumbach once again puts words into their mouths that could only come from the reality of a child’s true pain and fear. Kudos to all. In the end, you are rooting for all of them to survive, despite one another and because of one another. They all deserve a better end, as do all children and adults of divorce.
The main difference between the two films, besides basic plot and setting, is the inherent likeability of one set of parents (“The Squid and the Whale”), despite their imperfections, and the absolute unlikeability of the other (“Margot at the Wedding”), because of their imperfections. Itmay seem like the “fix” is in. While both films deal with family betrayal and the consequences, it may seem unfair to weigh my perceptions so heavily toward “The Squid and the Whale.” “Margot at the Wedding” has a different somewhat comedic slant and maybe not quite so tidy a relationship at the center. The relationship between two sisters, Kidman and Leigh, is not as recognizable or sympathetic as is the marital one between Daniels and Linney. And the child in “Margot at the Wedding” is not quite as verbal or easy to pin down as the two brothers in “The Squid and the Whale.” So one could make the case that we are dealing with two different animals here, albeit from the same family gene pool. Both are very visceral films in an insidious, emotional way. And, in both cases, production values are superb all the way down the line.
A film about family members imploding and destroying their very fiber is ultimately a story of love gone wrong in so many ways. “The Squid and the Whale” is populated with people you truly believe in as human beings, as a family and as individuals trying to find themselves without purposefully hurting one another. You die a little when they do, laugh a little when they do, and cry a little when they do. Because they are like all of us. We relate. “Margot at the Wedding” is populated with monsters disguised as human beings and we not only don’t relate, but wish someone would come and kill the monsters like in a bad fairy tale. In an honest movie about family and dysfunction, one ultimately has to believe in truth, not fairy tales. The winner, “The Squid and the Whale.”