Margot At The Wedding

December, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Noah Baumbach

Starring:Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jack Black

Despite his youthful appearance and the hip, urban chic of his productions, 37-year old writer/director Noah Baumbach’s a seasoned pro, with a half-dozen scripts, three previous directorial credits and an Oscar nomination on his resume. His 2005 film, (The Squid & The Whale) garnered substantial critical acclaim and unusual commercial success for an art-house film; with considerable wit and charm, it examined a highly educated middle class Manhattan family in which well-intentioned  parents mar each other and their precocious sons with levels of dysfunction both hilarious and achingly authentic. Baumbach’s ability to write insightful dialogue and get his actors to deliver it with off-hand, frank bluntness made the characters in that movie hum with vitality as they walked the thin line between agonized candor and well-articulated self-deception. This time, the balancing act fails miserably and the result is an often condescending, mean-spirited examination of characters so self-absorbed they provide audiences with little to enjoy and even less to admire.

Published short story author Margot, (Nicole Kidman) and her fey, pubescent son Claude decide to attend the wedding of Margot’s estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Already divorced from her daughter’s father, Pauline confides that she’s pregnant by Malcolm, (Jack Black) a writer-painter-musician hanger-on who lives with her in the waterfront house in which the sisters grew up. In attending the wedding, Margot may be seeking sibling reconciliation, or just an opportunity to briefly distance herself from Jim, (John Turturro) Claude’s father. Then again, perhaps she’s using the trip as an opportunity to continue her affair with Dick, a lover conveniently located a short distance from the scene of Pauline and Malcolm’s impending nuptials; Baumbach never takes the time to sort out the motivations of his characters, relying instead on their brittle, frenetic exchanges to convey a mix of self-and-mutual loathing. His characters share secrets but not intimacy and lacerate each other with confidences employed to gain momentary negotiating advantage with adversaries within and outside the family. The sum total of these fratricidal skirmishes renders the plot obscure and its resolution about as satisfying as coitus interruptus. 

Kidman’s quarter-century career has generated equal amounts of publicity and praise, involving a marriage to and movies with co-star Tom Cruise (Days of Thunder, Eyes Wide Shut, Far & Away) and performances that range from the heavily dramatic, (Dogville, The Hours) to financially disappointing remakes, (Bewitched, The Stepford Wives) along with commercially calculated blockbusters, (Batman Forever, Cold Mountain). With porcelain features crowned by that distinctive red hair, she possesses the puzzling ability to win coveted roles in big budget films while also working on projects, (Birth, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus) like Margot which seem primarily designed to embellish her image as a serious, dramatic actress. Her Margot is a nasty piece of work, at once cuttingly vicious and self-pitying; Kidman’s willingness to portray such a distinctly unappealing character may say something about her capacity to take creative risks, but one can certainly argue, on the basis of this film, that her courage isn’t balanced with much evidence of good judgment; Margot At The Wedding isn’t going to enhance anyone’s artistic reputation nor future bank-ability. 

Jennifer Jason Leigh, (who happens to be Mrs. Baumbach) has a more sympathetically-written role as the desperately vulnerable Pauline; by the film’s end, she’s shucked off Margot’s poisonous efforts to torpedo the wedding, but by then Malcolm’s been made the butt of so many mindless jokes audiences will find Pauline’s commitment to him just a slightly less offensive type of co-dependency. Black holds his signature clown-persona nicely in check here and his grasp of his own shortcomings contains the only hint of Baumbach’s previously-demonstrated ability to warmly embrace his own flawed characters.  As was the case in his previous films, Baumbach has the capacity to write dialogue for adolescent males that permits them to examine their fathers so the audience can get a bead on both generations; despite Turturro’s brief and nicely restrained performance, viewers can be forgiven for concluding that his impact on Claude’s development has been neither significant or particularly favorable. If Claude is in any way autobiographical, Bachman would do well to try elsewhere for his source material.

Margot has been in general release for a few months but I just saw it at a year-end film festival. The print was well-worn and showed signs of being a demo rushed into use for early award competitions; its colors were washed out and a boom mike could clearly been seen at the top of at least three different scenes, generating the impression that the production was made on a low-cost budget. Abruptly edited, stuffed with a succession of quick, tangential, unexamined scenes and laced with bizarre references to male urination habits, a neighbor’s dissection of a pig and the proclivity for unanticipated voiding by pregnant women, Margot emerges as little more than a poorly conceived and sloppily made master’s thesis helmed by a precocious yet self-absorbed film school student.

The verdict? Baumbach’s allowed the success of his prior film to go to his head; the result’s a spiteful, unappealing mess.

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