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Noah Baumbach plumbs the inky depths of smart, shallow people. Plus: Brian De Palma's Redacted.

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Filmmakers under pressure from studios or distributors often sand down their characters’ edges too much, hoping to make them easier to identify with, but that’s not a problem in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding: His characters are garishly narcissistic from first frame to last. Short-story writer Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her teenage son, Claude (Zane Pais), pay a visit to the island home of Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed blowhard. As the sisters thrust and parry and blurt out anything that comes into their neurotic, defensive heads, the camera is right in their faces, the editor leaping from close-up to close-up. The movie triggers your fight-or-flight instincts so quickly that you have to keep these people at arm’s length. They’re like icky aquarium specimens.

When it comes to narcissism (especially the narcissism of authors), though, the writer and director of The Squid and the Whale is a discerning oceanographer, and the spectacle fascinates as well as appalls. Margot is one of those vampire writers who appropriate other people’s lives for their work. (She once wrote a short story about Pauline and her first husband that apparently helped end the marriage.) She has ulterior motives for this journey: She’s breaking up with her devoted husband, and her lover (Ciaràn Hinds) lives near her sister. Margot tells her son her sister is crazy and Malcolm a loser, while Pauline tells Malcolm that Margot is berserk. (Staring into a mirror, his stomach jiggling over his undies, Malcolm observes, "My scrotum is longer than my penis.") The sisters do have one moment of joyful connection: They burst into hysterical laughter when recalling that their younger sister was raped by a horse trainer.

There’s a vibrant tradition of plays and films in which invasive guests dredge up all the household’s buried traumas. Usually, though, there’s a baseline of order, however shaky. Margot at the Wedding doesn’t develop; it just skips from one squirmy scene to the next. Kidman is in there working hard, as always, to transform, but she never relaxes enough to show that Margot has some larger awareness of her own grotesquerie. Maybe she doesn’t, but we have to spend an awful lot of time with heran investment with no return. She tells her patient husband (John Turturro, affectingly gentle) that she finds him "despicable," when all he does is help a woman with an injured cat beside the road. Later, she trains her venom on her needy son: "When you were a baby, I wouldn’t let anyone else hold you," she hisses. "I think that was a mistake." Zane Pais, in his film debut, has an open, receptive face, but why Claude doesn’t take an ax and give her 40 whacks is beyond comprehension. Where is his angerthe anger that must, on some level, have inspired this vicious little act-of-revenge movie?

Baumbach has written a plummy role for his wife, Leigh, an actress with a peculiarly discomfiting comfort zone that doesn’t suit every part. It suits this one. Her Pauline is twitchy and overly defended, but around Margot that antsiness seems a higher form of sanity. She’s both girlishly raw and haggard, as if she went right from adolescence to middle age. It’s too bad Jack Black overdoes Malcolm’s blubbery insecurity. He has marvelous comic timing, but his acting is external, and he makes Pauline’s attraction to him seem bonkers. Seth Rogen in Knocked Up is, in comparison, a real catch.

Margot at the Wedding lays the freakishness on thicklyeven the next-door neighbors are like sociopathic hillbillies. At one point, Margot takes the wheel of a car and screams, "We have no brakes!" and Pauline poops her pants. See the movie if you like emotional car wrecks and people who can’t hold their mud.

Brian de Palma is one of cinema’s most hypnotic stylists, a virtuoso whose multilayered tracking shots can expand your perception of space, time, and motion onscreen; so it’s a major statement when he throws away his jazzy technique and goes for something rough-hewn and immediate. Redacted is his fictionalized restaging of the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and the killing of her family by American soldiers. In content it bears a strong resemblance to De Palma’s Casualties of War, but in form it’s a furious charcoal sketch: an assemblage of fake documentary footage, much of it from soldiers’ camcorders, with inserts of a French documentary (also fake) about the lives of Americans at a security checkpoint in Samarra.

Critics have called the movie crude and punishing. All right, the defense concedes all that, but the movie does a harrowing job of depicting the psychological toll of the occupation on both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. Despite the presence of two American sociopaths (one named Rush, perhaps in honor of the radio commentator who likened torture at Abu Ghraib to frat-house antics), this is not an unsympathetic portrait. In the film’s best scene, we watch a car approach a checkpoint from the Americans’ point of view. It takes a long time, and who knows who’s inside it? All at once, you understand the corrosiveness of living all the time with that threat. And is it unpatriotic to point out that soldiers on their third tours of duty in a place where they have little knowledge of the culture, where they can’t tell who is on their side and who wants to blow them up, stand a good chance of losing both their moral compass and their minds?


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