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Photo: Ken Regan/Courtesy of Paramount Vantage

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 her—an 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 anger—the 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 thickly—even 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?

De Palma was forced to mask the faces in Redacted’s postscript, photos of bloody Iraqi corpses—men, women, and children. I respect his impulse to shock us into further rage, but I didn’t look at them. The movie is plenty gut-wrenching until then. As to the charge of misogyny that follows the director everywhere: Anyone who sees the suffering faces of the victims in Casualties and Redacted knows that De Palma not only despairs over what he’s showing us but implicates his own medium—his own male gaze—in the crimes against nature.

A colleague recently burbled to me that Southland Tales is “the worst movie of the year,” and I could not disagree more. Yes, it’s astonishingly bad, but it’s far too demented to warrant that ultimate dishonor. The writer and director, Richard Kelly, gets points for going where others (sanely) fear to tread. In only his second film (his first was Donnie Darko), Kelly concocts a vast cosmology, the foundation for an apocalyptic parable that borrows from Philip K. Dick and dips into Revelations, Kiss Me Deadly, Yeats, and (in odd company) Robert Frost. World War III has erupted; Middle Easterners nuke Texas (Why Texas? Why not?); the government is run by totalitarians, among them Miranda Richardson as Cruella De Vil; mutant Iraq-war vets hover like lifeguards over Venice Beach; Wallace Shawn in transvestite makeup invents “fluid karma energy” to solve the energy crisis; and Nora Dunn masterminds a “neo-Marxist” rebel group with the aid of hard-core porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar. There’s time travel, too, as well as a paranoiac screenplay that begins to blur with reality—or is the screenplay the real reality? It’s a lot to process, and I haven’t even mentioned the protagonist, amnesiac action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock), or Officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) and his mysterious twin, both of whom keep getting bonked over the head and who appear to be the key to an epic conspiracy.

Kelly aims high and must have shot off his own ear, which is the only way to account for the dialogue. Characters stare into the camera and intone things like, “This is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang”—which is supposed to be a pithy reversal. Southland Tales doesn’t go off the rails because it never has rails to go off. Cobbling it all together, sort of, is narration by a disfigured vet, who supplies a liberal amount of exposition along with character insights—”His heart was filled with despair”—all of which was rerecorded after the cataclysmic Cannes Film Festival premiere that clocked in at nearly three hours. (This cut is a scant 2 hours, 24 minutes.)

Southland Tales casts a bad light, retroactively, on Donnie Darko, but Kelly tapped into something remarkable there: The movie’s adolescent messianic-suicidal fantasy did justice to Tears for Fears’ immortal lyric (sung in the film by Gary Jules, in a plaintive cover) “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” I’m talking about the theatrical version, though. For his “director’s cut,” Kelly added back scenes, and the marvelous central ambiguity—is Donnie a savior, a nut, or a bit of both?—was replaced by outright (and dumb) religiosity.

I’ve heard that some critics cherish the ambition and eccentricity of Southland Tales, and plan to celebrate and defend it. I say, bless ’em. Visionary follies need their champions. The climax does have a certain delirious lyricism, as a glowing truck (which has ruptured the space-time continuum) floats through the Los Angeles night toward a glass-bubble cocktail lounge hanging above a skyscraper while Moby washes it all in shimmering synthesizers. Love it or laugh at it, you will gaze on Southland Tales with awe.

Occasionally you see a documentary and it hits you how much you don’t know about someone who was part of your mental landscape. Bewigged and queeny, the late Charles Nelson Reilly was a presence in mine, via The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Match Game, and so many other seventies-TV excrescences. He didn’t arouse much of anything in me, but he does in The Life of Reilly, a film built around his autobiographical one-man show. Bone thin, in the late stages of the pneumonia that killed him, he doesn’t dish much about fellow actors, and he only alludes to his homosexuality indirectly, when he describes how an executive told him early on that there was no place on TV for queers. Mostly the film is a series of vignettes about his childhood and the eviscerating mother who’d give Noah Baumbach’s Margot the heebie- jeebies. A titanic force of negativity, she’d bellow, “Save it for the stage!” and in the end, he says, tenderly, she’s why he’s on that stage. It’s the spark that’s missing from Margot at the Wedding, the core of hope that makes this wispy documentary indelible.

Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh follow in a long filmic tradition of husbands directing their wives. John Cassavetes famously directed Gena Rowlands in eight films (two of which won her Oscar nominations). And Woody Allen, of course, frequently merged his romantic and creative lives. Sadly, working together on Sideways was apparently too much for Alexander Payne and Sandra Oh, who split soon after. (The couple spoke to each other in the third person after shoots—Did the director say something wrong? Payne would ask—so as not to offend each other. “I was extremely nervous” on set, Oh told NPR.) Occasionally, the gender roles are reversed, as in the case of Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros, who directed her husband, Jan Nowicki.

Margot at the Wedding
Directed by Noah Baumbach. Paramount Vantage. R.

Directed by Brian De Palma. Magnolia pictures. R

Southland Tales
Directed by Richard Kelly. Samuel Goldwyn Films. R.

The Life of Reilly
Directed by Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann. Civilian pictures. NR.


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