Margot at the Wedding

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/21/07 00:09:37

"With A Sister Like This, Who Needs Enemies?"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

If you sat through “The Squid and the Whale,” Noah Baumbach’s 2005 comedy-drama about a family of spiteful narcissists do even more damage to themselves and their loved ones when they are torn apart by divorce, and felt that the characters were just too cuddly and charming for your tastes, then his latest effort, “Margot At the Wedding,” should be right up your alley. This is a film that introduces us to some of the most decidedly unpleasant characters to grace a movie screen in a long time and then asks us to become involved in their bitchy and hateful escapades for 90-odd minutes. The result is a film that has a lot of good and brave performances in the service of a film that is as profoundly annoying and irritating that you’ll want to do a reverse “Purple Rose of Cairo” and jump into the screen just so that you can slap some sense into the characters.

The Margot of the title is Margot Zeller (Nicole Kidman), a woman who professes to be a short-story writer of some acclaim but whose real job in life appears to be building up her sense of self-esteem by destroying it in anyone who comes into her orbit–family, friends, presumably the doorman of her building–with a seemingly endless string of critical barbs that she fires off in the same off-hand manner that you or I breathe. The wedding of the title are the upcoming nuptials of her estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an event that Margot originally planned to skip for no particular reason. However, since the happy event is conveniently located near both the sprawling home of Margot’s new lover/collaborator, best-selling author Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), and a recently scheduled book singing and since Margot has decided to leave her hapless husband (John Turturro) for reasons that she will not divulge or discuss–most likely, it is because a divorce will give her more things about her life that she drone on about endlessly–she decides to show up with son Claude (Zane Pais) in tow to lend her version of support to Pauline at this most important time.

This attitude lasts up until the moment when she meets her future brother-in-law, Malcolm (Jack Black), a cheerfully malcontent failed musician whose greatest achievements in life appear to be his goofy mustache (which he insists is “temporary”), the complaint letters that he constantly pens in lieu of a real job and his willingness to overlook any of Pauline’s flaws because of his overriding love for her. Needless to say, this is not an attitude that sits well with Margot and so she begins to quietly and passive-aggressively sow the seeds of discontent in the hopes of convincing her sister not to marry someone who clearly not up to her standards–Margot’s, that is. This involves numerous snide comments, instigating a war with the next-door neighbors (who are bizarrely portrayed as weirdo white trash, right down to a creepy kid that wouldn’t have looked out of place strumming a banjo with Ronny Cox in “Deliverance”), one public meltdown and a couple of shocking revelations but eventually, Margot gets her wish and everything falls to pieces and when Pauline finally turns upon her sister with the full fury of a lifetime of resentment, Margot tries to turn the tables by saying “I’ve kept my mouth shut up until now.” This, of course, is the single funniest line in the screenplay because while we have seen Margot do many things in the previous 90 minutes, keeping her mouth shut has most certainly not be one of them.

The trouble with making a film about self-centered, self-absorbed and eminently hateful people is that if you aren’t careful, you run the risk of making your film self-centered, self-absorbed and eminently hateful as well. The trick, of course, is to approach the material in such a way so that the characters, loathsome though they may be, are developed in interesting enough way so that audiences will be willing to follow along with them despite, or possibly even because, their advanced cases of solipsism. For example, last year’s “Little Children” featured a gallery of fairly unpleasant and deeply unhappy characters but because writer-director Todd Field (aided, of course, by the original novel from Tom Perrota) handled them in such a delicate and thoughtful manner, they became fascinating and complex characters that we wanted to spend time with in the movie theater even though most of us would steer clear of anyone resembling them in our actual lives, even the ones resembling Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly. On the other hand, if you don’t, you run the risk of coming up with something along the lines of “The Last Kiss,” “In The Company of Women” or yes, even the wildly overrated likes of “The Squid and the Whale”–unpleasant movies about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things while you sit there and wonder why you should give a damn about any of it.

Within a few minutes, it becomes painfully clear that “Margot at the Wedding” is heading down that second, lesser path and never veers from it for a second. When you consider that most films today do everything that they can to make their characters as bland and inoffensive to the general public as possible, Baumbach’s conceit in interesting enough but it soon becomes evident that he has spent so much time and energy trying to make his characters as unlikable as possible that he had neglected to give us any reason to be interested in what happens to them. Outside of offering up the suggestion that Margot, Pauline and another unseen sister may have all been abused as children, Baumbach doesn’t seem to have any interest in examining what makes his characters tick (and frankly, the abuse revelation feels as if it was dropped in solely to set up an especially unpleasant bit in which the two sisters laugh uproariously over something that allegedly happened to the sister). Instead, he lets Margot go on about her bad behavior in ways that would tax the patience of even the most tolerant and forgiving of individuals and makes Pauline such a helpless non-entity (until that final bit of rage) that we even get to see her crap her pants at one point. The closest thing to a vaguely likable character on display is the fiancee but Baumbach manages to nip that in the bud with a last-minute revelation that is a barely-believable construct that seems trucked in to display his barely-concealed contempt for. . .well, for anyone who isn’t Noah Baumbach, I guess.

What keeps “Margot at the Wedding” from slipping over into the realms of unwatchability that are normally occupied only by the works of Henry Jaglom is the same thing that saved “The Squid and the Whale” from a similar fate–the high quality of the performances that Baumbach has elicited from his actors. Faced with the notion of playing one of the most reprehensible characters in recent film history (at least in the non-serial killer/military tyrant division), most actors might have either avoided the part entirely or tried to figure out some way of humanizing it. Instead of trying to take the edge of off Margot, Nicole Kidman effectively deploys her often-cool on-screen persona in a manner that perfectly dovetails with her character’s behavior–just when you think there is no way that she can make Margot any more repellent, she figures out a way to pull it off. (I should probably stress that I mean this as a compliment.) In her first major role in quite a while, the always-fearless Jennifer Jason Leigh unexpectedly takes on the quieter role of Pauline and attacks it with the same fierce commitment that she has brought to so many of her previous roles. However, the performance that may really shock viewers is the strong and relatively serious work turned in by Jack Black–he smartly eschews the brash persona that he has displayed in the past in such films s “High Fidelity” and “School Of Rock” for more subtle and nuanced turn that is surprisingly effective in its restraint.

I guess “Margot at the Wedding” deserves some points for its purity of purpose–you never doubt for a second that this is exactly the kind of story that Baumbach wanted to tell–and for the impressive lead performances. However, those elements aren’t enough to compensate for the fact that they are in the service of a story that forces us to spend our valuable time in the company of people that we would go extraordinary lengths to avoid in real-life circumstances. A filmmaker like Todd Solondz does things like this as well but while I have rarely liked any of his films, I will admit that they are intriguing enough in their hatefulness towards the human condition to make them worth investigating on some level. “Margot at the Wedding,” on the other hand, is simply unpleasant and tedious–if I had to choose between sitting through this film again or enduring my own painful and wounding family squabble, I would choose the latter without hesitation.

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