Few films have more precisely delineated why younger people loathe their Baby Boomer parents' experiments with sexual liberation than Noah Baumbach's painfully autobiographical comedy about his bohemian intellectual parents' 1980s divorce, "The Squid and the Whale." The adults, both writers, calmly set up a fair-sounding joint custody arrangement that has their two children (and family cat) ceaselessly hauled about Park Slope, a literary neighborhood in Brooklyn, but it turns out to be a logistical and emotional catastrophe.
In "The Squid and the Whale," Jeff Daniels won some long-deserved recognition for his hilarious portrayal of Baumbach's father, a pompous "experimental fiction" author and professor given to dinner table pronouncements such as referring to Kafka as "one of my predecessors."
Despite adoring reviews, most critics missed the 2005 film's point: that the actual villain was Baumbach's adulterous mother. They overlooked its central theme -- the destructiveness of female infidelity -- because it's sexist (and therefore unthinkable) to notice that a wife's cheating is even more destructive for the family than a husband's, for obvious reproductive reasons ... even though countless human cultures have felt that way.
The irony was that Baumbach's bloviating father was equally clueless about his own nature. In theory, he was an artistic genius above all those deadening bourgeois morals like monogamy. In reality, however, he was a mediocre writer but a faithful husband and reasonably diligent provider who deserved better than cuckoldry.
The younger Baumbach's eagerly awaited new movie, "Margot at the Wedding," with Nicole Kidman as a prominent short story writer and unfaithful wife who inflicts her moral and mental breakdown on her adolescent son when she brings him to her estranged sister's second marriage ceremony, makes his prior film brutally clear. To clear up misconceptions about who the guilty party in his parents' divorce was, Baumbach has John Turturro drop by as Kidman's gallant, kind husband, an English professor who tries to save their marriage from her affair with another writer.
Meanwhile, the insidious Margot does her passive-aggressive best to sabotage the upcoming wedding of her aging, pregnant sister (Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) to an unemployed musician. Jack Black, the usually charismatic star of "School of Rock," does an impression of his typical fan in his role as Leigh's heavy metal-damaged fiancé. Margot liberally displays the IQ elitism of Manhattan liberals, telling her sister that she's too smart for her fiancé, only to be taken aback when her potential brother-in-law mentions that he went to Stuyvesant, the famous science high school that admits only 850 of 28,000 applicants.
Margot's malevolence is both calculated and spontaneous. She indulges the artist's sense of entitlement, the assurance that holding her tongue to be polite would sap her talent. Moreover, Margot likes provoking traumas because she recounts the family's secrets in her New Yorker stories, just as the sometimes self-loathing Baumbach does in his movies.
Sadly, in sharp contrast to "The Squid," "Margot" doesn't really work. Napoleon supposedly said, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence," but Baumbach now appears to have it in for his audience. While his low-budget last film was cheap-looking but at least visually serviceable, this one is intentionally underexposed to look depressing. All the outdoor scenes appear to be taking place during a partial solar eclipse. Likewise, the plotting and editing are carefully worked out to frustrate viewers' desires for character development and dramatic interest.
Worst of all, although competently acted, "Margot at the Wedding" is just not funny. Baumbach repeatedly sets up scenes so preposterously cruel that the audience is primed to laugh in relief, but he is too angry at his anti-heroine character to finish the jokes. The sympathy that made his depiction of his father amusing and ultimately endearing in "The Squid" is lacking here.
Hopefully, "Margot" will be a brief lapse for Baumbach. Worrisomely, though, it's part of an annoying trend toward clever and quirky but unfunny films by high IQ auteurs like Wes Anderson, whose "The Royal Tenenbaums" managed to extract barely any laughs from a cast featuring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. Indeed, Baumbach collaborated on the script for Anderson's 2004 bomb "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." "Margot" resembles a cross between Anderson's ostensibly comic but humorless movies and the seemingly somber yet ridiculous films like Todd Field's "Little Children." The common denominator appears to be young filmmakers who take their own intelligence a little too seriously.
Rated R for sexual content and language.