.People Who Need People

Are the most fucked-up people in the world. Take it from Noah Baumbach and Kurt Cobain.

When The Squid and the Whale swam into art cinemas in 2005, enthusiasts of comic urban anxiety were treated to a feast of strained relationships. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s story of a university professor (Jeff Daniels), his writer wife (Laura Linney), their two impressionable sons (Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg), and their big breakup had the tang of reality to it — ostensibly based on Baumbach’s own family life as the son of former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown and novelist and critic Jonathan Baumbach.

The characters’ wince-producing grappling with each other and themselves was somehow refreshing in its zesty, over-intellectualized bitterness, a slightly more sophisticated revisiting of the motifs of Baumbach’s earlier films, Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy. Baumbach’s Squid characters were the sort of people you’d walk across the street to watch slug each other, then run a mile to avoid re-encountering — people so tense and insecure they could never let an opinion stand unchallenged, especially when it’s voiced by a member of one’s own family.

The hectoring pettiness was nonstop. Ditto the yearning for love, even the inky, squid-like variety. Surely, having purged himself of this scenario, Baumbach (who also wrote one of Wes Anderson’s more obtuse films, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) would now be free to move on to other vignettes, to investigate the wide world a bit and explore different styles of communication.

He did just that. And yet he ended up right back where he started. Margot at the Wedding is another helping of the backbiting, neurotic people that made The Squid and the Whale such sick, satisfying fun — in this case two sisters who love to hate each other, and their assorted hangers-on. But it’s no longer much fun.

New Yorker Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a successful writer of fiction, defiantly quixotic and self-absorbed. Alongside her, slipping out of her thrall, is her pubescent son Claude (Zane Pais), the sort of bright, sensitive kid we might cheer for. As the film opens they arrive together at the family summer home in Long Island’s Hamptons to celebrate the impending second marriage of Margot’s unaccomplished sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a chronic slacker named Malcolm (Jack Black). This represents a wary rapprochement between the sisters.

Margot’s estranged husband, Jim (John Turturro), makes a short appearance but mostly remains back in the city. Margot is scheduled for a reading at a local bookshop, hosted by a writer named Dick (Ciarán Hinds), in whom she’s interested. There are hideous neighbors butchering hogs at night and throwing garbage over the fence, and a provocative young woman named Maisy (Halley Feiffer) always fluttering nearby, with designs on any available male. So the scene is set for a memorably awful weekend.

Kidman and Jason Leigh positively swill in each other’s brine. Scene after awkward scene unfolds: Margot climbing the tree, the croquet match, Margot spying on the neighbors, Malcolm’s bad driving, Malcolm’s hilarious tantrum after not backing up Pauline in a tiff with the neighbors (for the first time, Black is actually funny), the wounded dog in the road, the terrible literary event, and so on. Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s significant other in real life, is particularly sharp in the neglected sibling role.

But it’s young Claude we worry about. Who the hell names their son Claude? Do they want him to get beat up every day of his life? Margot tends to her son like a mother vulture: “You smell real,” she murmurs. Feh, the kid is already self-conscious enough. And she belittles him: “You’re so stiff, so blasé.” And of course we watch him masturbate. When Claude finally catches the bus, we rejoice for him. The others can fend for themselves.

Baumbach reportedly intended Margot at the Wedding as an homage to the great French director of romantic character studies, Eric Rohmer. Uh-uh. Baumbach’s creatures are too abrasive, too unforgiving of each other’s follies, to ever live in Rohmer’s world. The only commonalities between Margot‘s characters and the inhabitants of Pauline at the Beach or A Summer’s Tale are their insecure search for love and acceptance, and their proximity to the shoreline. Baumbach needs to break out of his backyard. Wes Anderson did. Too much misery is finally just too much misery, no matter how amusingly perturbed these people are.

As a young man, grunge rock demigod Kurt Cobain had a lot in common with Margot‘s preteen Claude: parents breaking up, poor role models, no self-confidence, looking for love in all the wrong places, etc.

But Cobain solved his adolescent troubles by becoming a rock star, taking drugs, and killing himself. Today he’s in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. How’d that happen? An arguably worthwhile new documentary, Kurt Cobain About a Son, presents the first-hand story of Cobain and his band, Nirvana, using the singer-songwriter’s own voice, from audiotaped interviews made between December 1992 and March 1993 by journalist Michael Azzerad for his book, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana.

Director-editor A.J. Schnack, who previously made a documentary about They Might Be Giants, sets Cobain’s candid musings — reportedly recorded between the hours of midnight and dawn at Cobain’s Seattle home — to a striking montage of scenes of Washington state: boatyards, lumber depots, damp forests, soggy gutters, Mt. Rainier, mildewed walls of cheap houses in Cobain’s working-class hometown of Aberdeen, etc. In the manner of Jenni Olson’s procession of San Francisco landscapes in her 2005 film, The Joy of Life, the images combine with Cobain’s voiceover for a cumulative effect that seeps into the film rather than exploding onto it.

Cobain is fairly inarticulate. Emotionally damaged and always in pain, he’s given to such self-assessments as: “I cannot get along with average people. I have to tell them that I hate their guts” and “I’m a product of spoiled America.” He discusses his musical arc as a synthesis of punk rock and a poppier style, influenced by a mixed bag of artists: Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Cheap Trick, Iggy Pop, Scratch Acid, and Mudhoney, among others. And yet with Nirvana he struck a nerve as the King of Self Pity. At least Kurt Cobain About a Son lets us glimpse him in context.


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