One Sister Skewers Another In This Venomous Drama
You can be forgiven for assuming that Margot at the Wedding, writer/director Noah Baumbach's latest movie, is his indie hit The Squid and the Whale in a bridal dress. After all, it's a family drama set in New York overstuffed with eclectic characters and uncomfortable situations.
But Margot doesn't take long to let you know that you're not going to get a second helping of flawed but ultimately sympathetic characters trying to make it through tough times. No one has time for intellectual banter, music analysis, or even romance. They're too busy tearing each other apart.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a successful New York writer who has based most of her stories on the personal tragedies of her family. Not surprisingly, she's managed to estrange herself from the real life version of her characters, including her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who blames Margot for the break up of her second marriage.
Pauline is getting married again, this time to Malcolm (Jack Black), a sad bear of a man who "works" frenetically at assorted creative pursuits when he's not resenting those who made it. Margot's last-minute decision to attend the wedding with her son Claude (Zane Pais) doesn't make sense until we learn that she's also there to reconnect with an old lover.
The wedding is also a homecoming for Margot, whose parents left Pauline their house. Baumbach does a particularly good job populating this generic Long Island resort town with characters that represent its contradictions. Next door, the natives grill whole pigs and fight about privacy and property rights. Down the road, a displaced writer (Ciarán Hinds) passes the time by wrecking the lives of his friends. Even the despondent teenagers spend their time passing gossip rather than plotting to escape this lazy hell.
Margot doesn't waste its time ratcheting up the drama, revealing within the first few minutes that Malcolm is a mistake, Pauline is pregnant, and Margot isn't just another ambitious writer, but a cruel and heartless person, too. Kidman pulls off being cold and nasty without being particularly beautiful, suggesting that she has a future of playing bad mothers. Leigh's character is gullible, carefree, and adult at the same time, and while we don't get much clarity about where her real passions lie, she proves to be a relief from the compulsions of the other characters. Although many things happen over the course of the rest of the movie, none of them do much to develop the characters.
Despite the fact that much of the movie draws from stock characters and situations, we're saved from boredom by Baumbach's ear for dialogue and his unwillingness to turn trite events into Chevy Chase-style antics. His characters get up to the usual weekend getaway mischief--getting stuck in a tree, kissing someone they shouldn't, fighting feebly with enemies--but we don't expect any lessons. Although it might have been wiser to do away with these moments altogether, their brevity makes them tolerable.
While Margot's characters could have been pulled from Woody Allen's scrapbook, the story draws more from the ugly tales that provided the raw material for Dogme 95 movies such as Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration--but the dark secrets it revealed justified the character's responses. Here we sense that the same things happen every time Margot visits her sister, and that the movie could have just as easily occurred at a different time in their lives with no real effect on anyone involved.
Baumbach has said repeatedly in interviews that he was inspired by the films of Eric Rohmer, one of the lesser-known French New Wave filmmakers famous for his movie series about everyday life. Rohmer's movies work in part because any one installment is part of a larger project, and that their allegiance is not to the cinematic form but to humanity. Rohmer's characters confront moral situations without successfully resolving them, and while his work isn't universally loved, his movies succeed on their own very limited terms.
Although Baumbach might have tried to make Margot an installment in a series about a set of characters or situations that would allow us to withhold judgment until seeing all corners of the world he's created, you don't get that impression here. Instead you spend a weekend with people who have troubles too obnoxious and complicated for us to try to understand. And in the end, we get out of our seat and move on. Like Margot, we'd rather just leave our past behind and hope for something better.