Brian De Palma is an under-celebrated director, responsible for some of the most stunning sequences in American cinema. Just to name four personal favorites of mine: the split-screen prom massacre in Carrie, the Langley heist sequence in Mission: Impossible, the Grand Central Station steadycam chase in Carlito’s Way, and even the failed spacewalk rescue in the otherwise not-so-great Mission to Mars.
Like his touchstone Alfred Hitchcock, he’s also fascinatingly problematic enough to fuel a thousand hours of analysis and debate. Instead, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary provides only a quick overview of his work, solely from one point of view.
In what appears to have been a single sitting, De Palma reminisces over his filmography. The feature-length running time allows only a few minutes to cover each work, reducing his observations about each to a bullet point or two. His stories range from the gossipy (Bobby De Niro wasn’t motivated to learn his lines for The Untouchables), to dismissive (of the criticism over his violent & scopophilic treatment of women), and ultimately philosophical (on knowing when to retire, with Hitchcock and Wilder as exemplars).
There is of course great value in getting such a notable and controversial filmmaker on the record, after his career appears to be complete. But this documentary’s scattershot episodic structure is too broad and shallow, without a central thesis to hang a movie on. It would be serviceable as a value-added-material featurette, but not as a standalone theatrical feature film.
I very much loved writer/director Noah Baumbach’s previous film The Squid and The Whale, blessed with an excellent script and superb performances all around (especially by the underrated Jeff Daniels – heartbreaking in Pleasantville, and capable of humanizing no less an icon than George Washington in The Crossing).
Margot at the Wedding features another dysfunctional family, but so spectacularly so that the characters didn’t seem recognizably human to me. I don’t think the problem is as simple as merely identifying with the particulars of their lives (abusive father, celebrity lifestyle, etc.), for I also had little in common with the family in The Squid and The Whale.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) brings her son to her family home for her sister’s Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding to layabout Malcolm (Jack Black). Pauline is the sole family member insecure Margot can physically face, which she can only manage through passive aggressive games asserting her superiority. We barely glimpse a third sister and their mother, from whom Margot literally flees. They feud with the strangely savage neighbors, providing yet another set of characters for Margot to look down upon.
Margot’s favorite pastime is armchair psychoanalysis coupled with a kind of inverse hypochondria. Obsessed with detecting symptoms of mental illness in everyone around her (the irony being that she’s often correct), she fails to diagnose herself. She’s a fiction writer whose work bears more than a passing resemblance to her family’s history. Margot’s failure of imagination amounts to a kind of theft, and is a central theme of the movie. “How much of your work is autobiographical?” is no doubt a cutting question nearly every writer (including Noah Baumbach) hears at least once a day. Margot’s lover Dick (Ciarán Hinds) even uses it as a weapon to publicly attack her. It is cruel, but in her case, accurate.