Thanksgiving greetings from What Does The Protagonist Want

For your holiday family viewing pleasure, I recommend taking your siblings and parents to Margot at the Wedding. It is neither heartwarming nor life-affirming, but I will promise you this: no matter who you are or what your family is like, there is not a chance in hell that they are as screwed up as the family in Margot at the Wedding. Seriously, you could have a sibling who, I don’t know, tortures animals for a living or something, and if you took that sibling to see Margot at the Wedding, I guarantee you, after the movie you will turn to that sibling and hug him or her and say “Thank you for being such a wonderful sibling.”

(Margot at the Wedding is a great family movie in the same way Your Friends and Neighbors is a great date movie. Anyone in any stage of any relationship could go see Your Friends and Neighbors and walk out feeling like they were with the warmest, kindest, most understand person on Earth. You could be dating a serial killer, and go to see Your Friends and Neighbors, and want to cuddle up nice and snuggly next to them afterward.)

So, Margot at the Wedding is about a really, seriously crazy woman who shows up to ruin her sister’s wedding. And that sounds like a facile movie cliche, but let’s not forget, Margot at the Wedding is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the shining miracle The Squid and the Whale, one of the greatest movies of this young century. Margot, in some ways, is almost a sequel to Squid, it’s like we follow that neurotic teenage boy and his even-more-neurotic middle-aged mom on an adventure in the country.And it’s one thing to say “crazy woman at the wedding,” but nothing I could say could prepare you for how sharply, finely-drawn this character is in her craziness. I’m assuming that she’s based on Noah Baumbach’s mother, and I’m kind of sorry that he had to live through that, but I’m glad he did and I didn’t, and I’m extra-glad that he at least inherited her talent for turning family trauma into great writing (if you see the movie this will all make sense).

The acting is wonderful throughout, but I just want to say, that Nicole Kidman? Boy she sure can act.

On a completely unrelated topic, I also watched Knocked Up this evening. I had missed it in the theaters for reasons having nothing to do with its qualities, which are supreme and abundant. I laughed, I cried, I recognized humanity.

Nicest of all, I got to watch both of these movies, for free, in the comfort and privacy of my own home. Why? Because I’m a member of the WGA, that’s why, and the studios send me all kinds of stuff to watch in the hopes I’ll vote for them for a writing award. That’s right, the studios care that I might like the writing in their movies, so they send me free DVDs.

And that’s why the WGA has to win this strike, because if the studios breaks the union I won’t get any more free DVDs between Halloween and Christmas.

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The Squid and the Whale

This is a movie about the dissolution of an American family.

I saw it in the theater when it came out.  After it was over, I raced home and started writing a script about the dissolution of my own American family, which dissolved when I was roughly the same age as the older son in this movie.

Watched it again tonight.  Now I’m thinking, “Nope, I’m not going to finish that script.  Because I can’t write as well as this guy.”

This is simply one of the best written, best directed, best acted American films I think I’ve ever seen.  It could not be more straightforward, unfussy, unpretentious.  It could not be more naturalistic, better observed, unpredictable.

As a director, Noah Baumbach, like Ozu, has one shot.  With Ozu it’s the “camera sitting on the floor” shot, with Baumbach its the “handheld camera” shot.  A completely stock effect that you would have thought had run out of steam years ago, but it completely disappears here.  In Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, you’re constantly thinking “Aha, he’s using a jittery, handheld camera to good effect here,” in The Squid and the Whale you don’t even realize that it’s there.

Why don’t you realize it?  Probably because the script is so freaking good.  Just really extraordinary.  Tiny little scenes of completely normal human behavior, tiny little gestures saying volumes about the characters without ever saying “Hey, did you get what that scene was about?”  Beginning toward the end of the scene, so that we have to do a little catchup to figure out what’s going on, having the dialogue be things that people are not saying as well as things they are.

Or maybe it’s because the direction and editing are so good.  Unselfconscious jump-cuts remove anything that isn’t important, whip-pans look accidental but then turn out to have a narrative or thematic link to the next scene, the camera stays close to faces but never in a way that says “Hey, this is a movie about faces.”  Scenes that would have been milked for their “dramatic import” here are presented as they would have been in real life, meaning, one rarely understands when an “important moment” is happening in one’s life.  It happens, and many years later one realizes what the important, life-changing, crossroads moment was.  No, scene after scene goes by of crushing importance, but it’s all moving too fast and with too much fidelity to life for something as clumsy as “drama” to enter into the picture.  That is, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a scripted drama at all; it feels like a camera crew followed these four characters around for a few months, shot thousands of hours of film, and then edited it down to this.

Or maybe it’s the acting, which is simply some of the best I’ve ever seen.  I’ve always liked Jeff Daniels (who would dislike Jeff Daniels?) but his performance here as a faded, past-his-prime novelist and recently-divorced father is just one of the most astonishing I’ve ever seen.  And again, not calling attention to itself.  Incredibly detailed, thoughtful, lived-in.  I can’t remember a movie where I saw people thinking on screen so much.  Laura Linney, who’s always good, is equally mesmerizing as the mother.  And then there’s the two teenage boys, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, who give two of the most detailed adolescent performances I’ve ever seen.

For a movie with no “plot” per se, it crackles with intensity and flies by in a breathless (pun intended, you’ll see what I mean) 81 minutes.

This movie is a miracle.