Here for Haynes amp; Dylan, Not There for Margot

by Beacon Staff • October 14, 2007

Director/screenwriter Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding confirms the belief that all weddings end in tears. These tears, however, are borne of frustration, not sadness or joy. Following The Squid and the Whale, his well-crafted tale of divorce and adolescence in New York City, Baumbach returns to his favorite subjects: uber-literate intellectuals who are prepared to dissect the existential underpinnings of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment yet unfit to deal with modern life and human connection. The depiction of these brilliant, yet tactless and dense idiots is taken to another level in Margot at the Wedding: caricature.

It's easy to argue that Margot's characters are unsympathetic-and they are-but that's not the film's main problem. It's that Margot (Nicole Kidman), her sister Pauline (Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) and every other adult in the film are so aggressively and impatiently conceived by Baumbach. They're fully formed within 15 minutes and lack growth or nuance from there. Instead, they simply repeat their same annoying prattle. Therefore, Baumbach robs the characters of any shred of humanity that the actors try to inject into the roles. Margot, in particular, is monstrous in the way she sabotages relationships and consistently betrays those who trust her.

Kidman tries to bring a human element to her in hopes that the audience will understand Margot's motivations. But despite a deep devotion to the role, the performance doesn't completely work. Similar to nearly every other cartoon in Margot that Baumbach plucked from his screenwriter's bag of overly intellectual twats, it's hard for the actors, like Kidman, to bring compassion to their roles. Baumbach stifles them with grating, histrionic buffoons.

There are precocious children involved, whose benevolence conflicts with the adults' pessimism, but they're not given much beyond a nauseatingly precious detail or two. Pauline's daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) enjoys peeling off her skin at movie theaters and placing it on the seat so it can stay and watch films all day. The most bizarre element of the film, however, is the inclusion of the backwoods next-door neighbors, whose only apparent purpose is for Baumbach to condescendingly juxtapose physical savagery with the verbal cruelty of ultra-civilized folk. The writing in both examples mixes highbrow haughtiness and contrived character detail, and is distractingly transparent.

In his previous features (including 1995's acute Kicking and Screaming), Baumbach displayed a Woody Allen-like knack for exposing the tenuous bonds in relationships and then expertly cutting the negative tension with a joke. In Margot, however, this technique doesn't feel elegant and natural-it feels like a stale formula.

Margot is deeply disappointing, considering Baumbach was able to weave The Squid and the Whale's flawed characters into an insightful and bittersweet observation on familial dysfunction and the New York literati. There's only self-indulgent bitterness here, though. Baumbach appears to have lost the fine-tuning necessary to depict erudite individuals who are too principled and bullheaded to have healthy relationships.

Margot at the Wedding is not a successful marriage; it's a nasty, mirthless example of a screenwriter and director who, in this case, can only find creativity in negative energy. After Baumbach's success with the sharp Squid, Margot doesn't verify his reputation, but vilifies it.

_____________________________________________

Todd Haynes' newest film-as-thesis, I'm Not There-an ode to Bob Dylan's music and constantly transforming personality-proves that, in film, things have changed. Haynes concocts something new, something different-something that cinema needs in these times of uninspired, commodified biopics like Walk the Line and Ray.

I'm Not There is a mesmerizing blend of music, cinema and theory that not only evokes the essence of Dylan at his most radical or religious or reclusive, but also takes on his personas as they are a changing. Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and Ben Whishaw all embody reincarnations of Dylan, but this isn't simple stunt-casting.

Inspired by "the many lives of Bob Dylan," I'm Not There posits multiple worlds in which each representation of Dylan exists. These surreal, time-shifting landscapes not only evoke the essence of Dylan, but also the history of film, particularly European cinema of each era, with well-placed allusions to Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini.

The film's immediate effect is hypnotic, throwing the viewer into a phantasmagoric vision that analyzes identity and the question of the self. It's dreamy, yet grounded by truth. It's a film you absorb.

There are uncanny similarities between Dylan and Haynes; they're students as much as they are artists, studying past genres and reinterpreting themes and ideas to usher in a modern age. As artists, they're as influential as they are influenced.

Of course, in a film that takes so many risks, not all are direct hits. With all these ideas, it's easy to go a little over the top, and a scene at a Halloween festival full of masks is a good example of what this film didn't need.

Nonetheless, I'm Not There is Dylan manifested in celluloid-boldly living in the moment, constantly transforming itself and remaining appealing even in its most elusive segments. I'm Not There isn't just designed to please Dylan acolytes, though; it's for lovers of pure cinema as well.