DVD Release Date:  February 18, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  November 16, 2007
Rating:  R (for language and sexuality)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  92 min.
Director:  Noah Baumbach
Actors:  Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Zane Pais, Ciaron Hinds, John Turturro

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following review contains discussion of adult subject matter that is not appropriate for young readers.  Parents, please exercise caution.

Together with her 12-year-old son, Claude (Zane Pais), Manhattan novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman) heads to the Hamptons for the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Pauline lives in their childhood home on the water and is marrying a struggling artist/musician named Malcolm (Jack Black).

Margot is a woman of few boundaries.  She uses her son as a private confidante, snoops in her sister’s things and even reveals a secret, that Pauline is pregnant.  And, though married, Margot is also sleeping with a fellow writer, who just happens to be one of Pauline’s neighbors—something Pauline suspects as the real reason behind Margot’s sudden urge to visit.

Margot and Pauline have been estranged for some time, largely due to Margot’s use of family stories in her writing, so their reunion is prickly.  After she begins criticizing Malcolm—and everyone else she meets, from their best friends and the next-door neighbors to strangers on a walking path—tensions mount even further.  Margot is also manipulative, in subtle ways that play mind tricks on her son.  “Just use a condom,” she says, after he expresses interest in the teenage babysitter.  When Claude finally begins to bond with his aunt, she lies that Pauline is disappointed in him, because “he hasn’t been very helpful.”

Nicole Kidman’s talent oozes to the surface in this role, which she plays with a disconcerting mélange of sympathy and cunning.  You can’t help but shrink from her viciousness, yet you pity her, too.  Leigh (who is married to the film’s writer/director, Noah Baumbach) gets to play a sane character for once (albeit a dysfunctional one) and does so winningly.  She’s the baby sister who is no longer jealous, and who just wants a little peace and happiness.

Newcomer Pais shows great promise as the budding adolescent who is starting to realize that Mom isn’t perfect, but who isn’t quite sure why.  Not that anyone can be, because Baumback doesn’t even allude to a reason for all this dysfunction.  Black, on the other hand, struggles with his role. It’s a relief to see him in a serious part, but he can’t seem to escape from his melodramatic comedic urges.  He cries like a small child, runs away from another adult and throws temper tantrums—all overplayed for this subdued film.

Baumbach, who is best known for his 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale, writes about what he knows. He’s the son of famed Village Voice critic Georgia Brown and novelist Jonathan Baumbach, and thus grew up among the literati of New York City.  It’s no wonder, therefore, that his films have a strong literary feel and explore parent-child relationships.

Using austere cinematography that matches the chilly relationships and ocean breezes, Baumbach infuses his film with lots of symbolism:  a tree that may get chopped down; the slaughter of a pig; a child who leaves pieces of skin around the house.  But in the end, they don’t lead anywhere and in some cases, even seem extraneous.  Accusations are launched, secrets are revealed, decisions are made—all without any real meaning or consequence.  It’s a bit like reading a long, obscure novel.  The characters are mildly interesting and the dialogue is good, but you don’t care what happens.