Reputations at Stake

Underfoot in the Christmas rush:

Margot at the Wedding is Noah Baumbach's somewhat disappointing follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, though maybe not so disappointing if proper heed had been taken of his slovenly visual style, the inexact camerawork, the mismatched shots, the gray, murky, dingy color. But still somewhat disappointing, in the central characterizations, for the sacrifice of focus and clarity in favor of shiftiness and multiplicity. Everyone in the dramatis personae is an uncohesive bundle of neuroses, and the smaller bundles are simply the characters with the smaller parts. The bigger ones are handled by Nicole Kidman as a well-known writer ("to a very few people") who, while undergoing her own marital breakup, drags herself and her girlish teenage son to her pregnant sister's second wedding; by Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach's wife offscreen) as the hitherto estranged sister, a counterculture free spirit and reckless seeker; and by Jack Black as the groom-to-be, an unsuccessful and self-critical musician ("My scrotum is longer than my penis," "I have the emotional version of whatever bad feng shui would be," and so forth) who shaves off his nuptial mustache ("It's meant to be funny") when no one gets the joke. The overall level of sophistication remains high, even by New York-ish or New Yorker-ish standards; the hostile and rather sinister neighbors are good for a chuckle and a shudder; and the young folk (newcomer Zane Pais, Flora Cross, and the nice neglected girl from The Squid and the Whale, Halley Feiffer, Jules's daughter in real life) are so well drawn, in concord with those in his previous film, as to saddle Baumbach with an unshakable reputation. Nicole Kidman, of course, can do the tightly-wrapped thing without strain, and Jennifer Jason Leigh can do the loosey-goosey. Jack Black, who could certainly use the exercise, deserves credit for stretching if not for attaining.

Juno, by comparison, is Jason Reitman's not disappointing follow-up to Thank You for Smoking, though it doesn't necessarily start out that way. In the title role of a pregnant Minnesota high-schooler (named after the Roman goddess of marriage, fidelity, fertility), the dry flat sardonic line-delivery of Ellen Page, the angelic avenger of Hard Candy, is not easy to warm up to ("I'm just calling to procure a hasty abortion"), no matter how much we might try to see it as an adolescent defense mechanism, or how much as humble emulation of Janeane Garofalo. And the garishly colorful dialogue, from first-time scripter and former stripper Diablo Cody, often tends to push too hard ("Being pregnant makes me pee like Seabiscuit"). The heroine, interested after due deliberation in simply finding a good home for the baby, not in making a profit off it, finds a possible taker in the weekly PennySaver ("next to the exotic birds"), a neat-freaky suburban couple in the gated confines of Glacial Valley Estates. It's there that things really begin to get interesting. Our initial arrival at the housing development is alone sufficient to convince us of Reitman's directorial bona fides: a series of static shots of antiseptic House Beautiful after House Beautiful as the car passes across the screen, left to right, in front of each. And the prospective mother, Jennifer Garner (her piano-wire tautness put to good use), turns out to be the neater of the pair, someone who will studiously ponder "custard" versus "cheesecake" as the color for baby's room, while the prospective father, Jason Bateman, proves to be the freakier, a stay-at-home composer of advertising ditties and a frustrated rock-and-roller. A curious, potentially dangerous after-school relationship blossoms between him and the heroine: he may be a commercial sell-out as a composer, but he's a person who can talk music to a teenager, and he demonstrates "decent taste in slasher movies" (e.g., Herschell Gordon Lewis's The Wizard of Gore, another impediment to our warming up to the heroine). Over time, the film builds, and it does so with proficiency, patience, and foresight. I must keep the particulars to myself, but I cite as an example of expert screencraft the mysterious note left on the doorstep on the back of a Jiffy Lube bill, and the when, the where, and the how of the disclosure of its contents. (Proficiency, patience, foresight -- all there.) If the heroine is never wholly embraceable, the surrounding characters go far to compensate, specifically J.K. Simmons as her droll laconic dad, Allison Janney as her worldly-wise, even-keeled mom, and above all, Michael Cera as her shunted-aside, unassertive, but ever-faithful boyfriend, the baby's biological father, and a cooler dude than you'd ever guess from his track-team togs. (I gather that Cera had a major role in last summer's Superbad. I didn't see it. Maybe I should have.) And if the dialogue is unabatingly overcolored, at least the hues are spread around democratically.

Starting Out in the Evening, directed by Andrew Wagner, is a literary indie, not just in source material (a well-regarded novel by Brian Morton) or in talky, articulate, literate treatment, but also in subject matter: a stiff-necked New York Jewish intellectual (he wears a tie when home alone), a drinker at the well of Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Irving Kristol, et al., struggling to complete his fifth and final novel before his demise, parrying the time-consuming advances of an adoring, auburn-haired grad student who has selected him as the obscure topic of her master's thesis, and who has set herself the difficult goal of getting him back in print. (Subplot: his unmarried daughter and her ticking biological clock.) This is a small, slow, serious film, not without humor, in spite of the straightness and narrowness (or because of the straightness and narrowness) of Frank Langella's committed performance, his total avoidance of anything like comic loopiness and broadness. Lauren Ambrose and Lili Taylor give him plenty of credible trouble as the chief women in his life, new admirer and aging daughter respectively.

Youth without Youth clocks in as Francis Ford Coppola's first film in a decade (The Rainmaker, just to jog your memory), although in truth he hasn't been a force since the decade of the Seventies. His comeback, or anyway his return to action, should secure his position in the margin: an English-language (variously accented) art film, replete with "painterly" light, monochrome flashbacks, experimental dream scenes circa 1925, upside-down and sideways images, mirror-multiplied images-within-images, doppelg...nger dialogues, Nazi boogeymen, Eastern mysticism, decades of period settings. Inspired by a philosophical novella of Mircea Eliade, it revolves around a hoary old Romanian linguist (Tim Roth) who, when struck by lightning, miraculously reverses the aging process and runs into a dead ringer for the long lost love of his youth (Alexandra Maria Lara). It progresses from abstruseness to absurdity.

That last one is not scheduled to open till next week, but I am getting to it while I am able. The holidays will play hell with my deadlines, and I can't guarantee the regularity of future transmissions.

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