Out, Cold: Margot at the Wedding, The Golden Compass, I Am Legend
By Fernando F. Croce

Nicole Kidman Week. I caught Margot at the Wedding and The Golden Compass back-to-back, a double-feature that illustrates the formidable glacial reserves of her screen presence (and possibly accounts for the tenacious cold I have been nursing since). Kidman is too tense for comedy, yet the more I watch her, the more I'm convinced that the fembot in that remake of The Stepford Wives may actually have been her ideal role -- I swear you'd hear a metallic "ping!" if you flicked your finger at her. Maternal warmth doesn't exactly come naturally to her, which is fine since in Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding she's playing the kind of mother who looks at her child and says, "I wish I taught you better manners." Kidman plays Margot, the wedding is her estranged sister Pauline's (Jennifer Jason Leigh); Pauline is about to marry an unemployed Artiste (Jack Black) whom she describes as "meticulous," meaning he spends most of his time writing letters to magazines that review his music. Margot is a Manhattan literati whose short stories leech their drama from all those around her, and her arrival at Pauline's home in the Hamptons promptly unpacks years of knotted-up resentment between the two sisters, from childhood rivalry to abusive fathers to the tidbit that Pauline keeps a drawer full of porn while Margot can't masturbate right. One faux-insightful barb triggers another, Margot spills the beans about Pauline's pregnancy so Pauline dares her to climb the old family tree, where she gets stuck. One relates to Pauline's son Claude (Zane Pais) when he sneaks between train cars to let out a scream, and that's before the real drama begins.

Like his bud and collaborator Wes Anderson, Baumbach traffics in fractured families, privileged whining, and leaden metaphors (the rotting family tree here, the Oedipal baggage in The Darjeeling Limited). I find both of them aesthetically pinched, emotionally stingy, and guilty of taking only the most superficial things from the French New Wave. While Anderson wants to be Truffaut, the title of Margot at the Wedding shows that Baumbach is going after Rohmer, whose incisive generosity could make novelistic modulations utterly and beautifully cinematic. Baumbach's forte is nasty abruptness, a sort of sudden emotional violence that cuts in and out of the characters like a butcher's cleaver (meanwhile, Rohmer wields a delicate scalpel). His other strength is an unsentimental direction of young actors, which gets affecting performances from Pais, Flora Cross and Halley Feiffer; there's also keen work from John Turturro and Ciarán Hinds, and Black refrains from singing in a high-pitched voice, always a plus. It attests to the movie's atmosphere of rattled nerves that Kidman and Leigh, actressy actresses both, are often jangled into loose, raw moments -- Kidman's façade cracking as a bug flies into her ear, Leigh contemplating whether to kick Feiffer down a flight of stairs. These are better performances than Baumbach's characters deserve: As with the earlier The Squid and the Whale, depths of bitterness are revealed simply to be neatly and pettily streamlined in a movie that doesn't trust its audience (the protagonist at one point describes her attitude as "ambivalent"), sees anyone outside its circle as knuckle-dragging hicks, and, besides, looks like shit. The results aren't bruising, just numbing.

*

Kidman Number Two is a different type of Mommie Dearest, at least when it comes to wardrobe: While her Margot was allowed only a floppy pink hat (doffed off by Bernadette Lafont from some '70s French film, undoubtedly), her Ms. Coulter in The Golden Compass is given a full cabinet of resplendent gowns and photographed like the centerpiece of a fashion-jewelry expo. The unformed gaze she claws at here belongs to Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a young orphan in a Hogwartian place run by a vaguely ecclesiastical but decidedly villainous (Christopher Lee sits at their table, for Pete's sake) cabal known as "the Magisterium." There's intrigue concerning "dust," flying witches (led by -- hey now! -- Eva Green), kidnapped children and many close-ups of the eponymous doodad. Just in case there's still any coherence left, all of this takes place in a parallel world where people's souls are called "daemons" and take the form of chatty pets. (The baboon-mirroring-gorgeous-woman's-emptiness trope was done sublimely in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, here... not so much.) Complaints about anti-Christian messages in this inert, jumbled fantasy simply supply further evidence that the Catholic Church doesn't think much of its followers: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books, on which the film was based, have been fed into the blockbuster blender and pureed into a replica of the Harry Potter-Narnia template of plucky British kids flying into fantasy lands, of which I've frankly had an assful. When the once-powerful CGI polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) gulps down a bucket of whiskey, is it supposed to be a comment on the fall from grace of the ursine star from the old Coca-Cola commercials? Directed by Chris Weitz, this excruciating pap feels every bit the first chapter of (egad!) a trilogy.

*

I Am Legend provides a welcome break from the Nags of Nicole, at least for its first hour. The latest in a wave of post-apocalyptic sci-fi visions (28 Weeks Later, Resident Evil: Extinction), it lays out the premise -- New York City in the future becoming a deserted "Ground Zero" after a viral outbreak -- with refreshing calm and care (no seizure-cam, thank God). Will Smith is the lone survivor, a scientist who, when not studying the rabid ghouls that come out at night, plays golf off the edge of a stalled aircraft carrier, hits on mannequins, and bounces his Will Smithesque lines off his co-star, a German shepherd named Sam. Director Francis Lawrence works with a modest but crafty sense of space (Smith's search for his dog inside a dark, creature-infested building) and wry bits (a view of Broadway is a reminder of the old MST3K joke about Andrew Lloyd Webber plays surviving even the Armageddon). As a study of a man alone in the void, however, I Am Legend is closer to Tom Hanks with his volleyball in Cast Away than to the existentialism of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel. Inevitably, ideas give way to special-effects -- Did the filmmakers really read the original story and think it was all about cool-looking zombies?


Reviewed December 16, 2007.

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