In Into the Wild, Chris McCandless idolizes the life of a writer. Men like Tolstoy, Emerson, Thoureau and Whitman were his guides through the forests and the rivers, previous solitary figures who challenged nature to reveal its secrets, its hidden meanings and purposes. The job of the writer as McCandless saw it was to strip himself (and it was almost always a man) of all baggage, both literally and figuratively, and enter into the eternal world as a blank slate; to be reborn.
But had McCandless ever pursued an MFA, or attended a writer's retreat in the Midwest, it is likely his illusions about writing (if nothing else) would have dissipated quite quickly. Most writing today is not in the transcendentalist spirit of the epic of nature, but the small and personal battles in one's own life. The goal is not to strip away the ego and the hang-ups, but to investigate them. Put simply, the writer doesn't abandon his family, he immerses himself in them.
McCandless could have also learned this from watching a Noah Baumbach movie. His most recent film Margot at the Wedding, just released on DVD, returns to many of the same themes the won such broad critical praise for The Squid and the Whale - ego, insecurity and, above all, the and vanity at the core of art - only the narcissism and the selfishness has been amplified. While Squid's novelist Bernard Berkman was despicable in certain aspects of his personality, the novelist Margot, as played brilliantly by Nicole Kidman, is close to a monster. The painful dynamics of family, squeamish in Squid for anyone who had lived through a divorce, become close to criminal in Margot. At times, Baumbach's savage portrayal of artists comes close to parody, especially in Jack Black's obnoxious performance, but there is just enough realism to redeem Margot (the movie, if not the character).
The set-up is that Margot has been invited to the wedding of her estranged sister (and awesome Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two have not spoken in years, but for many reasons unrelated to the wedding, Margot decides to go, accompanied by her son Claude (Zane Paris). While the sisters initially bond, Margot is put off by Pauline's bumbling fiance Malcolm (Black) and begins dropping subtle and not-so subtle hints that she should leave him. As the week goes along, much of their old history comes back to the surface and the true reasons for Margot's visit becomes apparent: her own life is crumbling.
The relations between Margot, Pauline, Claude, and Malcolm are fascinating and while often cruel, seem at worst slight exaggerations of how people actually act towards one another, at least in elite Northeast families. Margot, as a novelist, has basically alienated her family by portraying their lives in fictional accounts: one story in the New Yorker about Pauline and her former husband had caused the breakup. She has made a series of terrible decisions throughout her life, but continues to see them as part of the artistic process, of freedom, self-exploration, and basically revelling in misery.
I wouldn't be surprised if people balked at this movie because of just how selfish, mean-spirited, and nasty Margot was. But what I realized while watching the movie was that it wasn't shocking because Kidman's portrayal of Margot was worse than dozens of other artist-as-asshole movies, it was shocking because the asshole was a woman. Actor's like Nicholson, Crowe, and Penn have made careers out of playing selfish and nasty characters like this, the ones who because they are so talented in other aspects of life, simply dismiss most people as stupid. There is no question that Margot is an elitist, and that she is completely obsessed with herself, but so is half of Hollywood. On the face of it, she is hardly different from the writer Melvin Udall from As Good as it Gets, except she doesn't offer a little charming smile after her asshole comments. Her novelty isn't in the personality; it's the gender.
But while Kidman's performance itself stands up to the best parts of Squid, the movie suffers from too many peripheral characters who add nothing to the story. Malcolm, in particular, is involved in several pointless subplots that seem to belong to another movie, as if the Farelly Brothers showed up at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. It's hard to blame Black (he is who he is), but it was a severe casting error to put him in a role that, as written, is barely recognizably human to begin with. A better actor could have paired some of the sitcom-level parody from Malcolm, but Black seems to feed on the stupidity and two-dimensionality of his role. There also seems to be some possible score-settling by Baumbach (whose parents are both New York writers) in Margot's sometime-lover and crime writer Dick Koosman, who seems written as a personal attack on someone close to the Baumbachs more than as a living and breathing person.
It may seem that after his last two movies, Baumbach has turned in on himself, and away from the family. While in Squid the Berkman parents were clearly autobiographical, Margot seems less like a portrayal of Baumbach's mom (Village Voice critic Georgia Brown), and more like a mix between himself and his parents. After all, it it he who is mining his personal life for art and fiction, who is publicly playing out the dynamics of his parent's divorce in front of millions of theater goers. If this is right, then Baumbach has done something amazing in fictionalizing many of his own feelings as both a writer and child of writers into the characters of Margot and Claude, making himself into both the perpetrator and the victim of abuses against family.
I do hope, however, that Baumbach discovers that other kind of writing and exploration sought for in Into the Wild. While McCandless clearly could have used a does of realism and the courage to face his family's troubles rather than run from them, writer's like Baumbach need to escape their own heads and family every once and a while and recognize that there are things as important as family worth writing about, territory worth exploring outside of the mind. After all, what made writers like Tolstoy, Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau great was that while they all sought a form of isolation at one point, they never abandoned the ideas and struggles of the external world. They engaged themselves not only in the classic artistic pursuit of self-discovery, but in social and cultural battles. Sure Tolstoy wrote reams about unhappy families, but he also wrote about Napoleon.
If you really wanted to write about Into the Wild you should have gone ahead and done such because wedging in the comments to the beginning and ending of a Margot review is a painful stretch, even morseso than my trying to compare Darren Aronofsky with David Fincher. I didn't read Krakauer's book but I do not think McCandless wanted to be a writer, or cared about the craft of writing at all. And if any writer was his idol it was Jack London and not becasue of the life Jack led but becasue of the world he wrote about in his books. Just because Chris kept a diary and wrote some letters to his sister doesn't mean he was aspiring to a writing career or living like a writer. And since when is living off the land and off the grid considered the life of a writer? I doubt McCandless thought Jack London lived without a bank account or a publisher. Nothing about Into the Wild made me think, here's a guy with a deep appreciation for Tolstoy's technique or world view. I think you might be projecting onto McCandless much like a lot of people have and do -- which is what makes him an interesting character for so many people.
But digressions aside, I did enjoy Margot at the Wedding quite a bit. I would say that the real shock, if any, regarding Margot's mean streak is who it's directed towards and the basic realization that Margot doesn't think she's cruel at all. Everyone loves a bastard. Look at the success of "House", a tv show succeeding on the premise that people will tune in to enjoy the daily verbal abuse of a talented asshole to his struggling underlings. Everyone likes a good bitch, too. More recently we've had Devil Wears Prada and the excellent series "Damages". There are numerous, wonderful bitch roles out there that the public has enjoyed watching. But these characters know they're assholes, well aware of it, tend to revel in it, and I think that has a large part in the viewers enjoyment. That and they generally aren't berating their siblings and especially not constantly spouting cutting, hurtful barbs at their impressionable, pubescent son. These are the reasons why some people might not click with Margot.
But Kidman is great in the role. She manages to not make Margot an alien, or some unidentifiable monster. I'm sure that's why she took the role, to step up to this challenge of making Margot human. There's always a hint of pity to her and it's basically the only thing the audience has to grab onto to make her worth watching. I think the rest of the cast was great in this respect too. Even Jack Black, I thought, managed to reign himself in and make Malcolm something more than a caricature. While I like to wallow in the pathos as much as the next guy (possibly more since I rank Mike Leigh as one of my favorite autuers), I thought the movie desperately needed the laughs he supplies and found Malcolm to be the most identifiable character. Like Claude, I like him. I've met more Malcolms in my lifetime than I have Margots. Sure, you could take his character arc out of the movie -- hell, you could make it a half hour short film about two sisters trying to reconnect and leave out everyone else if that's all you want to focus on. But for me Malcolm was just as fine an example as what the movie's about as any of the rest of them -- an ultimately wounded, pathetic person hiding behind a facade of pseudo-intellectualism and self-absorption. His line about looking forward to having a child so that he's no longer burdened with having himself be the center of the universe was one of the best lines in the movie.
While I can't say I connected with Margot the same as I did with The Squid & The Whale, or Kicking & Screaming for that matter, it was a joy to spend time with these characters even when it was unpleasant. While the movie isn't going to be doing much for any of these actors career-wise, it looks like it might crack the 2 million mark soon enough but won't crack 60% on the Tomatometer any time soon, I enjoyed seeing Kidman step away from her 5 year string of Unwatchables to remind me that she can indeed act (only when she isn't being paid?); and whenever Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up in anything it is generally cause for attention but here she was really given time to shine.
Of course, a good part of the success the actors achieve is due to the writing. I found it thoughtful good call that an effort was made to make these characters a product of their time. Margot's fascination with diagnoses and paranoia over Asperger's or autism was an especially nice touch. I do hope Baumach widens his scope a bit though I have this comlpetely unwarranted fear that his friendship with Wes Anderson may cause him to do otherwise. Funny that after two movies with similar themes you ask for Baumbach to move on but take me to task for asking the same of Anderson. Ah well, whatever.
It's been a while since you've seen Into the Wild, so I will cut you some slack, but two of your comments are baffling:"Nothing about Into the Wild made me think, here's a guy with a deep appreciation for Tolstoy's technique or world view."
Really? Not that Anna Karenina was one of the last books he read? Or that Tolstoy, after a life a fame and celebrity withdrew into near isolation in the countryside? Or that McCandless's interest in the "regular people" of the world, and his romanticism, is almost exactly that of Tolstoy's?
"And since when is living off the land and off the grid considered the life of a writer? "
That would be since Walden. Or, more generally, since the Trancendentalist movement in America. Or, going further back, it would be Vergil and the Ecologues. Or more recently, since Kerouac and the beats. Or London. Or Steinbeck, or just about any of the other dozen examples of writers who wrote about nature or the road. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the struggle of the individual against society is the dominant theme of literature. You really don't think that, had he survived, he wasn't going to write about it? The only things he brings from civilization aside from necessities are books, a notebook, and pens! He quotes Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Emerson! The idea that he wants to write is hardly a projection.
I brought up the movie for the exact reasons I mentioned, that McCandless had a very romantic view of the writer (I don't see how you can argue this), and that it stands in sharp contrast to Baumbach's insider's view of the modern writer. Personally, I like the kind of writers McCandless liked a hell of a lot more than the MFA crowd that tend to dominate the scene today (Jonathan Safron Foer, Zadie Smith, Eggers to an extent) and who Baumbach grew up with. I thought it would be interesting to contrast the two views, but apparently I touched some nerve by actually suggesting that McCandless wanted to be a writer. Whatever indeed.
On the movie, I doubt we will come to a consensus on Black. I find him to be barely tolerable as a comedian, and were I still a 13 year-old boy (like Claude), I might like Malcom too. But as far as the goofball side characters, I much preferred Billy Baldwin's Ivan from Squid . I don't know why you think criticism of the way the side characters were written means I thought they should be eliminated; they should just be better written and/or acted.
Even with all of this, it seems we are on the same side (a slight majority) with people who actually liked this movie. Two million is pretty bad though, so I'm thinking the public appetite for the struggles of the children of writers is pretty low. Ironically, he would probably have a lot more success with these themes in The New Yorker or Ploughshares.