Margot at the Wedding (USA; 91 min.)

directed by: Noah Baumbach
starring: Nicole Kidman; Jennifer Jason Leigh; Zane Pais; Jack Black; Joihn Turturro
Margot at the Wedding

Michael says: "Stories about dysfunctional families often make for great comedic and dramatic fodder, both in novels and in films. Noah Baumbach was successful mining this territory in 2005’s THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, but while I enjoyed that film, I did have some problems with it. In his follow-up, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING he narrows his family view to two sisters, Margot, the successful-yet-neurotic writer played by Nicole Kidman, and Pauline, needy yet more grounded, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. When Margot and her son Claude unexpectedly arrive at Pauline’s house (formerly the family homestead) in the country for her wedding to Malcolm (a surprisingly nuanced Jack Black), all sorts of emotions are stirred up. On the surface, the sisters seem to be happy to see each other, yet all-too quickly, things start to slip that their relationship has been a rocky one. Margot is bitingly judgmental of Malcolm, and confides inappropriate thoughts with Claude. She is also keeping from her son the fact that she is leaving her husband (John Turturro) and is having a fling with one of Pauline’s neighbors.

"I loved how Baumbach would cut from one scene directly into the middle of another; Margot and Pauline in the middle of a conversation that we have to hurriedly catch up with; or the two sisters using verbal shorthand to discuss a topic they clearly know all about while the audience, or anyone else listening, might be kept in the dark about. The screenplay is sharp and clever, with the two sisters particularly well drawn. Between the screenplay and the acting, it was clear that Pauline and Margot were sisters. Nicole Kidman was outstanding, with a character whose erratic moodswings and indecisiveness were surely a challenge. Kidman and Baumbach dance dangerously on the edge of making Margot sympathetic and hateful, but in my opinion, end up with the audience rooting for her. Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose performances tend to be on the erratic side, falls squarely on the restrained and effective side with Pauline. Their chemistry is a joy to watch. Young Zane Pais, in his first film role, and hugely pivotal one, is terrific as Claude, and as I mentioned above, Jack Black might have been slightly miscast in the role of Malcolm (people will want to laugh in many of his scenes, even his dramatic ones, just because he is Jack Black) but he pulls it off wonderfully. 4 ½ cats"

Thom says: "I saw this with terrific Chlotrudis reviewer Bruce Kingsley on his recent holiday in San Francisco. I gave it 4 CATS but I’m afraid Bruce didn’t like it nearly as much. I’m sure his review is forthcoming. Actually, I liked THE SQUID & THE WHALE much more, for what it’s worth. I wasn’t impressed with Jack Black as much as Michael was. I don’t think he fit so well with the sublime performances from Jason-Leigh & Kidman. A side note: At the beginning of the film I thought Zane Pais’ character was a girl & even funnier, Bruce thought he was a girl throughout the entire film. I never once rooted for the Kidman character, however."
Bruce says: " missing person is often a very effective plot device. The audience never sees Alex in THE BIG CHILL or Rebecca in REBECCA. To do so would require flashbacks since both characters are very much dead when their respective film begins. Another famous absent person is Addy Ross in the brilliant melodrama A LETTER TO THREE WIVES. In that film we hear her in voiceovers but never see her in person. We never see Abigail in ABIGAIL’S PARTY so that would be a better film for comparison to MARGOT AT THE WEDDING in which not one but two major characters never appear on screen. In the case of MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, a mother and sister seem to be part of the plot but never surface. For me that is one of the major flaws of the film. Noah Baumbach writes clever dialogue but what truly motivates his characters is often unclear. Almost from the beginning it is obvious that the relationship of Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is both contentious and doomed. There is no way the two sisters will ever experience anything approaching normal sisterhood. How irrational are they? I think we need a second and third opinion; mother and sister Becky (the sister who was raped by the horse trainer) remain conspicuously absent. We need them to lend perspective to what we are seeing on screen and to tell us which of the sisters is telling the truth, if such a thing exists in this family.

"Margot arrives with son Claude (yes, it’s true I thought Claude was a daughter – it is possible that someone like Margot would give her daughter an ambiguous French name – and am relieved to know that others had similar problems albeit ones that were apparently resolved long before mine) at the old family estate where her sister Pauline and Paulines’s daughter now live. The occasion is Pauline’s pending wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black), a colossal loser in almost every imaginable sense of the term. That Pauline has made a career of bad choices is evident. However, it is a stretch to imagine that Jack Black’s Malcolm could be one of them. (Black appears to have wandered in off the set of another film – he just doesn’t fit in here.) There are other more likely bad choices that Pauline would make. She might hook up with a gay man because he is sensitive and fun-loving; a sexy handyman because he is dynamite in bed; a married man who claims she is the one woman who understands him; or a boring businessman who offers her security. But not Malcolm.

"Margot and Pauline immediately begin betraying one another. To do so they enlist the services of their children. Margot’s motives for coming to the wedding slowly emerge and they have little to do with her sister. Margot has marital problems, professional problems and a love affair that is not going well. Throughout the film she remains totally unsympathetic and unlikeable, more so as we learn how she has manipulated her loved ones in the past and how she is using the wedding as an opportunity to manipulate the present and the future as well. Margot undermines everyone’s self confidence. She is deceitful; she is constantly belittling; she invades privacy; she casually violates the confidence others have placed in her; she demonstrates poor judgment in what she tells her son. Almost everything about her is loathsome. At the end of the films she makes a decision that from some angles could be viewed as positive. I consider it to be merely the lesser of two evils or a matter of perspective - she is running away from a sticky situation, not running towards a better alternative. In spite of my disdain for Margot, it is difficult to cheer loudly for the needy, desperate Pauline. She has made a mess of her life and there are no indicators that she will stumble upon an easier or rosier path.

"Admittedly, films about dysfunctional families - particularly those which expose the bad behavior of America’s entitled classes – are wearing thin with me. Nonetheless, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING is a delicious film to analyze and dissect. In spite of the many problems I had with this film I would recommend seeing it strictly on the strength of two incredible performances by Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. 3 cats"

Hilary says: "Dear Noah Baumbach,

Please seek therapy immediately.
The process couldn't possibly be any more painful for you than watching MARGOT AT THE WEDDING was for me.

Hilary N.

P.S. You totally owe me my $7 admission."
Jay says: "Movie-blogging resolution #3 for the new year: No more Noah Baumbach. I'm kind of shocked that I gave THE SQUID AND THE WHALE three stars a couple years ago. Time has caused me to stop thinking of it as an individual, amusing experience but rather as part of the blur of movies about unpleasant, privileged families who act as though their issues are somehow special.

"Granted, that's an easy resolution to keep because he apparently won't have anything new out in 2008, although '09 threatens him co-writing an animated adaptation of a Roald Dahl book with Wes Anderson, featuring voices of George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Bill Murray. Hopefully that will be a bit of a bounce-back for Anderson, because THE DARJEELING LIMITED sadly fell into the same category of tedious films about privileged whiners.

"Someone once said that happy families are all the same, but that the others are unique in their misery. I don't think that's true, but even if it were, that wouldn't make every unhappy family *interesting*. This one certainly isn't.

"We start with Manhattanite Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude (Zane Pais) taking a train and then a ferry back to Margot's childhood home, where Margot's sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is to marry Malcolm (Jack Black) under the old tree the next weekend. Margot doesn't think much of her sister's fiancé, but then Margot's a snob who hasn't spoken to her sister in years; the trip to the shore is also a way to avoid her husband Jim (John Turturro) and see her lover Dick (Ciaran Hinds).

"This family's particular dysfunction - which nobody suffers from worse than Margot - is the inability to shut up. The sisters cannot be with another person for more than a few minutes without saying something nasty, no matter how much better they'd be served by silence. It's not particularly witty, revealing, or entertaining nastiness, either - as near as I can tell, several of these characters are just mean and thoughtless, and what's gained from watching that be served up? Realism, I guess, but is that enough reason on its own to sit through a movie this dingy and morose?

"Writer/director Noah Baumbach clearly thinks so; MARGOT AT THE WEDDING shares an obvious kinship with his previous film, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. Both can be described as pitch-black comedies, are told from the point of view of a teenager watching his family of writers and academics collapse, and don't flinch from the dysfunction they exhibit. I've admittedly cooled on THE SQUID AND THE WHALE since I first saw it, but at least that had someone like Jeff Daniels's Bernard, who was as ridiculous and repulsive as anybody in this movie but also seemed complex and human enough to at least be interesting. I wouldn't be surprised if MARGOT was nearly as drawn from Baumbach's life as SQUID was said to be, although the process of making the characters less obvious stand-ins for real people seems to have sapped something from them, making them feel less real and specific.

"The really sad thing is, the details and depth that might have made these characters interesting as well as believable probably exists somewhere in the heads of the filmmaker and actors. The performances never hit a false note, and there is obviously history between the characters. Kidman and Leigh are especially good as sisters; there's familiarity, disdain, and begrudging affection between them. Kidman in particular deserves to be in a better movie, displaying several facets to her character, selling us on her being fond of her family members even though she often doesn't know how to deal with them. Jack Black has had his usual manic energy toned down, but he does a good job of playing Malcolm as an outsider a bit out of his league but not unbelievably naïve (he has been seeing Pauline for a year, after all). Zane Pais, Flora Cross as Pauline's daughter Ingrid, and Halley Feiffer as the neighbor's daughter represent the younger generation well, awkward and a little messed up without seeming too clever to believe.

"Films like this sometimes feel like they would make perfect sense to the people making it because they've been living with the characters for months and when they see the end result, they see all the context and backstory that makes it feel like a well-rounded film. The rest of us, though, just see what's on the screen. Sometimes, that's a movie that, while it doesn't present all the details, still speaks to something in the audience because it lets us in on enough that we feel a kinship. And maybe, if you've got a Margot in your family, this movie is like that, something a little too true for complete comfort but cathartic in how it shows others dealing with the same issues.

"But if you don't, they're just Baumbach's characters' issues, and he never manages to convince us that they are either universal or interesting enough for outside attention.

"Seen 31 December 2007 at the Arlington Capitol #6 (second-run) 1 cat and maybe a kitten."