In 1982, the year Fast Times at Ridgemont High hit theaters, Noah Baumbach was just a bookish kid from Brooklyn counting down the days to his 13th birthday. Too young to see the raunchy, R-rated high school comedy on the big screen, he eventually watched it on video ''probably,'' he guesses, ''sometime between eighth and ninth grade.'' It was not a joyful experience. While the rest of us got slaphappy over Sean Penn's stoner-surfer Jeff Spicoli greeting his uptight history teacher with a jovial ''Aloha, Mr. Hand!'' Baumbach fixated on the movie's one downer of a story line. After an unprotected romp in the pool shed with a sleazy older guy, Jennifer Jason Leigh's naive 15-year-old discovers she's pregnant, and has an abortion. ''Honestly,'' says the writer-director, ''Jennifer's performance so disturbed me that all the Spicoli partying-with-Van Halen stuff was lost on me. I was so upset by what happened to her.''
Maybe Baumbach was displaying some kind of premature husbandly protectiveness. Eighteen years after his Fast Times trauma, he met Jennifer Jason Leigh, fell in love with her, and, in 2005, married her. Creatively, the two share a fascination with the darker shades of human behavior. His is evident in the searing, semiautobiographical divorce saga The Squid and the Whale, which he wrote and directed, while hers is apparent in the myriad tortured, psychologically damaged characters she's played over the course of a 30-year career. Prostitutes, drug addicts, psychos. Name the turmoil, Leigh has played it in some cases, more than once. (See, among others: Rush, Single White Female, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Dolores Claiborne, Georgia.) ''We're really well suited for each other,'' says Leigh, sitting in a Manhattan restaurant not far from the couple's New York apartment. (They also have a house in Los Angeles.) ''It's kind of unbelievable to me. It's what I always wanted in a relationship.''
Now the two are about to unleash their love for life's deepest angst with their first collaboration, Margot at the Wedding. Like Squid, Margot is a brutal (and often brutally funny) study of family strife, only this time via two sisters. In her first starring role in six years, Leigh plays Pauline, a flighty, free-spirited single mom who invites her older sibling Margot (Nicole Kidman) to her nuptials with the hope of mending their strained relationship. Instead, Margot wreaks havoc on Pauline's life, trying to destroy her sister's relationship with her layabout fiancé (Jack Black). ''It's a portrait of a woman in crisis,'' says Leigh, 45, referring to Margot. It's also just about the strangest declaration of off-screen domestic bliss since John Cassavetes directed Gena Rowlands' (fictional) mental breakdown in 1974's A Woman Under the Influence. Baumbach and Leigh, however, don't find it odd at all. ''You're delving into stuff that's very painful and very raw,'' says Leigh. ''You can't always do that when you're in that place [in real life]. For me, the movie is exactly what you make when you're really happy.''
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