Margot at the Wedding and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the movies
Jennifer Jason Leigh is nearly 50 years old. She looks about 15 years younger, yet without that plastic appearance redolent of cosmetic surgery. For a while she was a real movie star, if not quite a popular one, sustaining widely seen films through performances such as her homicidal nut in Single White Female (1992) and tightly wound abuse victim in Dolores Clairborne (1995). Equally memorable, if less seen, were her turns as dirt-dumb yet sympathetic prostitutes in Miami Blues (1990) and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), a working-class housewife and mother blasé about her phone-sex day job in Short Cuts (1993), an undercover cop turned junkie in Rush, and the brilliant but dysfunctional Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).
Leigh blazed through ultrastylized retro hard-boiled patter as the female reporter in the Coen brothers' underrated 1994 flop The Hudsucker Proxy. Who saw her extraordinary performance in Georgia, a painfully astute sibling drama she produced (and her mother wrote) the next year? Hardly anyone. As time passed she could be glimpsed guest-starring on TV's Hercules and Spawn and retreating into supporting roles (like the wife who gets killed 10 minutes into 2002's Road to Perdition) when she wasn't turning to animation voice gigs.
It's true that mainstream audiences never really embraced Leigh, who enacted real disappointment and displeasure instead of fake romantic bliss while losing her virginity in her first lead role, in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She hadn't made it easy, unlike the drastically less complicated Julia Roberts. Leigh resisted being ingratiating or easy to understand and consistently played gawky characters in difficult moral circumstances. She was a nervous talk show guest, and she didn't seem obviously sexy, despite her frequently naked screen roles.
"I've never been a careerist," Leigh remarked during an awkward recent onstage conversation with Ben Fong-Torres (who seemed strangely fixated on a lascivious line of questions she wasn't buying), part of a tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That remains true. She's as gifted as any actress of her generation but hasn't quite scaled the high-profile heights of variably contemporary thespians such as Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, or Nicole Kidman.
The last is her costar in Margot at the Wedding, written by Leigh's husband, Noah Baumbach. Baumbach is best known for writing and directing 2003's The Squid and the Whale, though his 1995 debut, Kicking and Screaming, has a cult following, and 1997's Mr. Jealousy ought to as well. Margot pursues Squid's major themes: sibling and parental relationships, comings-of-age, familial wounds inflicted unintentionally and otherwise, and the emotional chaos physical intimacy wreaks. But Margot takes them out of the city, all the way to ... the Hamptons. Still, that's country enough for the neurotic, erudite urbanites who are Baumbach's specialty. Close proximity to the outdoors can't get them to relax their grips on historical baggage and personal grudges, even toward kin. In fact, a backyard tree turns out to be the symbolic and physical catalyst in the movie's application of a lit match to blood relations long primed for explosion.
Kidman's Margot is a type familiar in real life yet seldom so well detailed onscreen: the cunning malcontent who gnaws like a termite at other people's happiness, convincing everyone that it's for their own good. And Margot at the Wedding is concise, hilarious and cathartic, portraying cruel behavior sans authorial malice or even basic moral judgment. These people can't help what they do. The quirky dysfunction feels utterly credible. There's a moment when Kidman's and Leigh's characters reference a relative's youthful sexual abuse then erupt in inappropriate laughter. It's shocking, yet it seems just right, because that kind of gallows humor is typically a survivor's closely held secret weapon.
Kidman's chilly, defensive sexpot owns the title, but Leigh's Pauline is the movie's emotional ballast. Playing closer to her offscreen personality (or so Baumbach says), Leigh is a one-generation-late hippie chick who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt no matter how many times they've failed to return that favor. The story line and dialogue's excoriating peak occurs when Pauline is finally driven past endurance, howling well-earned abuse at the monster sister who's undercut her entire life. Leigh wails on 2007's most satisfying screen rant. If Baumbach wrote it for her, the favor is returned threefold. Who else could pull off its full, verbose fury and make sense of the story's refusal to fade out afterwards?
Leigh's major performances have always been the kind that people deem difficult: they're knotty, uncuddly, indelible. This is the rare movie whose scripted complexities are equal to those she brings to it.
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Opens Wed/21 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com