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The bitch is back: Kidman in Margot at the Wedding.

The Family That Hates Together

 By Laura Leon

Margot at the Wedding

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Writing in much the same vein he drew on in The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach once again assembles a dysfunctional family and then painstakingly, almost gleefully, pulls it apart. One imagines what a very young Baumbach could do with a hapless spider or fly.

In this case, Manhattan novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman) returns to the family home on Long Island for the upcoming nuptials of sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to affable loser Malcolm (Jack Black). (Malcolm’s current “occupation” is letter writing, having just spent a week penning a response to a Times music review.) Margot brings along her pubescent son Claude (Zane Pais) and her own seemingly bottomless store of complaints, corrections and pronouncements. Pauline, she tells Claude, is marrying beneath her. Later, during the emotionally fraught visit, she betrays Pauline’s confidences, spilling the beans about her pregnancy, and, for good measure, alternates loving nods to Claude with deeply personal insults. In other words, Margot is a complete monster, and yet, there’s something strangely compelling, even recognizable about her.

At times one feels as if Baumbach is trying to channel Woody Allen, yearning to create characters whose intellectual strengths almost belie the fact that they are so utterly fucked-up. It is during these moments when the movie feels constrained and precious. At the same time, he displays a remarkable ear for the lifelong conversations that percolate between warring siblings, tapping into long-ago slights that still burn. Margot at the Wedding is at its best when depicting the concomitant love and tension between Margot and Pauline.

What’s most intriguing about Margot at the Wedding is its intuitive take on family love and loyalty. At one point, a character observes that love for family is more powerful than anything else, a statement that seems ludicrous in light of the series of unfortunate events that unfold during the nuptial weekend. The truth to that philosophy, of course, relates to narcissism and self-preservation; both Margot and Pauline need to believe in their storied past, the specialness of each other and their family, and no amount of evidence to the contrary can undermine this underlying belief.

Quite often sterile, in look as well as tone—as if the bleached out tans and grays of an off-season island have leached onto the characters’ souls—Margot at the Wedding is uneven and dark. The handheld camera work and dingy surroundings give it a sort of 1970s PBS documentary look, which can be really distracting. The occasional forays into Claude’s burgeoning sexuality are decidedly uncomfortable, even raw, and I often wondered whether they belonged in an altogether different movie. Still, there are gems within, notably Kidman’s spot-on, nuanced performance, which is matched beautifully by Leigh. This isn’t a movie in which things really happen, but it does have its special rewards.

The nerd Machiavelli: Mitchell and the Pac Man Girls in The King of Kong.

Nerd Royalty

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Directed by Seth Gordon

A low-budget, affectionately nos talgic look at the heyday of Donkey Kong and other classic arcade games, The King of Kong is as mild-mannered as its hero, Steve Wiebe. Wiebe was the underdog who broke the Donkey Kong world record set by gaming icon Billy Mitchell. A reality-show-style documentary, it juxtaposes these two archetypical arcade geeks as Mitchell tries to reclaim his status with a new record. Though The King of Kong will appeal most to fellow joystick obsessives, it does contain enough naturally occurring humor and Middle America idiosyncrasies to call to mind American Movie—but without the condescension.

Set to a soundtrack of ‘80s pop songs and largely composed of archival footage, The King of Kong explains the enduring mystique of Donkey Kong, the extreme dexterity required by its elevators and escalators, and its semi-legendary “kill screen.” The game is organized into a sport by Walter Day, the eccentric founder of Twin Galaxies Scoreboard, a basement operation that scrupulously reviews videotapes of high-score runs and determines the winners. When questions arise about Wiebe’s videotape of his record-breaking run, Wiebe agrees to a live challenge, to be held at the Fun Box, a run-down arcade parlor habituated by the game’s handful of top players. Wiebe’s appearance is likened to Tiger Woods competing at Augusta; later, Day—without a hint of irony—will compare the competition between Wiebe and Mitchell as one of the great rivalries in sports, on a par with Mantle and Maris.

Wiebe is an all-American family man, a high-school science teacher who developed his eye-to-hand coordination by pitching and playing drums. Mitchell, whose mother suspected he was autistic as a child, is posited as a shifty-eyed Machiavellian, and his resemblance to Nick Cave is dramatized when a Cave dirge is played to a close-up of Mitchell slicking back his long, dark hair. Mitchell’s dry-as-a-Mennen Speed Stick sense of humor enlivens the film’s stretches of tepid geekitude: Responding over the phone to the sound of a handful of gamers unenthusiastically applauding a video of his comeback run, he replies, “Helen of Troy hadn’t this much attention.” In an attempt to up the competition’s emotional impact, Wiebe is shown with what are obviously glycerin tears streaming down his face. As the camera pulls in for a tighter close-up, he cracks up laughing.

The cultural import of The King of Kong unnoticeably heightens when the Guinness Book of World Records (a much larger, but similar, bastion of nerdiness) contacts Day for a list of champions, legitimizing the game—and giving Day’s Twin Galaxies Scoreboard a shot at international credibility. Yet the protagonists’ rise to fame is less compelling than the sequences of longtime gamers plying their skills on (now-vintage) consoles and engaging in their own peculiar rituals and rivalries, oblivious to the fact that their pasttime will spawn a global, billion-dollar industry.

—Ann Morrow

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