[5 December 2007]
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)
It’s that time of year when intimate strangers come over to eat large birds and drain your liquor cabinet. You know these people from childhood, but your lives have diverged since then. They have their own kids now, and their own interests that don’t dovetail with yours. But here you are, ready to pretend to put all that aside.
We speak of siblings, those creatures from your past with whom you may or may not still be bosom buddies. If you are, it’s all good. If not, you’ve got drama.
Drama, as we all know, is what makes the movies go `round. And movies, among their countless other attributes, are great at making you realize maybe your sibling rivalry isn’t all that bad. At least not compared with the barbed brotherly and sisterly love proffered in “Margot at the Wedding” and “The Savages.”
Some holiday releases unleash wacky dysfunctional families that try to reconcile their differences amid cute hostility. “Home for the Holidays,” with Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr. as the primary siblings, is my favorite of these. The new “This Christmas,” with a swarm of adult brothers and sisters descending on their mother’s Los Angeles home for Christmas, is also a worthwhile charmer with a deft ensemble.
The Whitfields bring various mini-dramas to the table, from scheming in-laws and a surprise wife to a pair of uninvited bookies looking to collect on a debt. But the family makes it through, as we know they will, and the audience leaves with a collective smile. We’ve grown accustomed to such films; we welcome them as a safe tonic in a stressful time of year, accepting their cliches as par for the winter course.
Though they’re technically comedies, “Margot at the Wedding” and “The Savages” are of a different kin. They have about as much sentimentality as a fine filet mignon has gristle. They thrust and parry in passive-aggressive combat, picking at an old wound here, reviving a petty resentment there. In the parlance of the day, they keep it real - so real you might fight the urge to flinch.
These aren’t holiday movies per se, but by appearing between Thanksgiving and Christmas - that 33-day zone that has slowly become one long slog of joy - they elicit instinctive reflection, and perhaps a hearty sigh, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That can be just as good as catharsis.
So bring your beloved sister out to see “Margot at the Wedding,” and be glad your beloved sister isn’t Margot. As played by Nicole Kidman and written by Noah Baumbach (the man who birthed the blunt-object divorce drama of “The Squid and the Whale”), she carries a sharp verbal needle with which she habitually, quietly jabs whoever is nearest.
Sometimes that’s her adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais), hauled by train to the Eastern shoreline where Margot’s sister Pauline will be wed to an underachieving but somehow appealing slob (Jack Black). But usually it’s Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). These sisters have a history, and it wafts to the surface each time Margot, a successful but spiteful fiction writer, opens her mouth. The insults are artfully indirect, even obtuse, often filtered through a third party.
“Margot at the Wedding,” like many families, operates in a reverberating echo chamber of recrimination. Enter at your own risk.
Movie brothers aren’t playing so nice of late either. In “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” Sidney Lumet’s lacerating new melodrama, vindictive Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) puts little bro Hank (Ethan Hawke) over a barrel by proposing they rob their mom and dad’s jewelry store. As you might guess, things go horribly wrong. It seems Andy resents dad (Albert Finney) for loving Hank more. So he takes it out on both of them with his half-baked plot. Hank, meanwhile, is sleeping with Andy’s wife (Marisa Tomei). This is brotherly love as urban Greek tragedy, with a deadly logic that carries through to the bitter end.
Then we have those bickering Savages. Jon and Wendy (Hoffman and Laura Linney) aren’t mortal enemies, nor are they terribly close. But their dad (Philip Bosco) is dying, and he was never much of a dad to begin with - which doesn’t get the adult siblings off the hook when it comes time to guide him through his final months. So they scoop him up from his sterile Arizona community, plop him in a Buffalo nursing home (both siblings have settled, alone, far away on the East Coast), and go through the unseemly process of becoming angry kids again, like adults reduced to childhood emotions upon visiting youthful haunts for the holidays. Sleepwalking through life, Jon and Wendy are jarred awake by old feelings they’ve long left out of sight and out of mind.
Jon, a Brecht scholar, is appropriately alienated. Wendy, a struggling playwright, is guilt-ridden. Jon is cold; Wendy is a liar. He’s resentful; she’s almost nostalgic. She loves the old man, while he, on a very basic level, hates him. The miracle of writer and director Tamara Jenkins’ screenplay is that both brother and sister are not only funny but so simultaneously identifiable and specific that it hurts.
At this point you may be asking yourself: Why in the name of all that is yuletide cheery should I see either of these upcoming alleged comedies? The easy answer is that they’re very good, imbued with stinging comic voices and stacked with vivid performances. These siblings are emotionally stunted but fiercely articulate, a combination that gives forth some wonderful screenwriting; it’s as if they need to strut their verbal stuff as a means of keeping the world at bay. Jon, trying to end a panicky midnight phone call from his sister: “We are not going to have to go out there and find him, Wendy. We’re not in a Sam Shepard play.”
More important, “Margot” and “The Savages” are bravely planted in the present. They don’t flash back, they rarely reminisce, and though they gloss over past insult and injury, they refrain from wandering off down memory lane (especially “The Savages,” which leaves dad’s wrongdoings willfully vague).
These are movies about brothers and sisters living now, as we all must do. The past lies latent in every flicker of emotion; there’s no need to make it literal on-screen. This also comes back to quality of screenwriting: When your characters are all there, you don’t need to jump through narrative hoops to show how they got there.
So what might Margot, Pauline, Jon and Wendy say to each other at a Christmas party? They’d probably start by eyeing each other nervously and making small talk. But after a few spiked eggnogs, they might begin to unburden - a confession, a frustration. And before long they’d be laughing to keep from crying about their respective broods.
It is, after all, a holiday tradition.