After the surprisingly good The Squid and the Whale, I expected great things from Noah Baumbach, especially considering his ability to secure the talents of Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh for his latest venture. And while they are good, as are many individual scenes throughout the movie, the whole didn’t add up to much, leaving us with the usual “might have beens” that seem to dominate these festivals more and more. Typically, the story is packed with neuroses, tics, accusations, and petty jealousies, but rather than pile up like a roadside accident, they develop much as they would over the course of a long weekend. Kidman is Margot, and though she appears to be the most together of the sisters (one of whom remains unseen), she is one step from a complete collapse, as she hates her husband, disapproves of her sister’s husband-to-be, and by all appearances, maintains a veiled contempt for her own son. She’s a plausible creation and never artificial, and while we can’t stand the bitch by the end of the road, she doesn’t act outside of the parameters set by the screenplay. Thankfully, Leigh, as Pauline, is also well-drawn; she’s filled with envy, pity, and a bit of reckless abandon, and she’s just intolerable enough to justify Margot’s judgment. In fact, the two are more alike than they’d like to admit, though only Margot has gone to the trouble to create a more respectable persona. Sure, the “together” woman as raging nutcase is hardly new, but it never felt forced.
Hell, even Jack Black (playing Pauline’s fiancé) comes off better than expected, as he’s finally found a role that channels his obnoxious gestures and boorish mannerisms into a multi-dimensional character. He even manages the biggest laugh of the piece, delivering a nasty retort to his fiancé that works above all because it is precisely how couples talk. Black is a buffoon, of course, and naturally betrays Pauline with a much younger woman, but I never resented his presence, despite the obvious pitfalls we’d expect. And yet, despite all of this, I failed to detect the larger truth I sought, and that the film seemed to believe it contained. Yes, I usually ignore the program blurbs — especially here, as it outrageously suggested comparisons with Bergman — but I couldn’t help but ask the film questions it didn’t seem willing (or able) to answer. Siblings are extremely close and as such, often remain bitter rivals, but what’s really at stake here? I rarely expect contemporary cinema to reinvent the wheel, but I’m increasingly frustrated by the tragically unfinished. I sat approvingly, chuckled now and again, and was never really bored, so why did I feel unfulfilled? “Just enough” won’t cut it, and festival offerings had better be willing to take more chances than simply using a well-known actor in an atypical setting. By and large, I’m more apt to support the portrait over the story, but here’s that rare bird that cries out for additional flesh.