Margot at the Wedding (2007)

22 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” is one of those “acquired-taste” films—particularly independent comedy-dramas that either enthralls you with what it presents or makes you angry if not annoyed. And while grittiness and documentary-style filmmaking takes a huge part of the films’ craft, what is mostly singled out is how unlikeable the characters can become. “Margot at the Wedding” does indeed feature characters who say and do mean, hurtful things to each other, and the film has divided critics because of this (I especially remember a 2007 “Ebert & Roeper” review with guest-critic Michael Phillips’ enthusiastic review of the film, followed by Roeper’s quite negative response). Now where do I stand on viewing the characters, and therefore the film?

Well, you saw the “Smith’s Verdict” rating above, so it’s not exactly a mystery that I personally love this film.

Noah Baumbach is the writer-director of “Margot at the Wedding” and it’s evident from his earlier film “The Squid and the Whale” how intelligently he handles the characters and situations he goes through. He doesn’t give the characters (or the actors playing them) one-note roles; they’re fully realized and have some redeemable qualities that can either be ignored or acknowledged depending on how much you’re able to accept them as real people. And since he sees them as real people, he finds it important that film audiences view them as real people; so thanks to specific direction and long, moving shots, a documentary-style of filmmaking is handy.

The characters in “Margot at the Wedding” are a family so dysfunctional that the family in “The Squid and the Whale” (divorced parents and two struggling sons) looks happier by comparison. Nicole Kidman plays the title character, Margot, a bitter woman who writes short stories, cares for her young son Claude (Zane Pais) after an ending marriage, and is, on her worst days, a neurotic, self-important bitch. It’s clear that in order to keep her own unsteady ego, she constantly hurts and insults those closest to her—even her own adolescent son, who does nothing to hurt anybody and is probably the most innocent character in the entire movie. (Watching this movie, I felt the same sympathy for this kid I did for the teenage son trying to survive a broadly-crazy family in “Arrested Development.” This kid does not deserve the type of mental scars parents’ battles can bring.)

Margot and Claude come to the Eastern shoreline family house of Margot’s sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black). Already, this reunion between siblings is sensitive and it only starts to get worse when Pauline confides in Margot with a secret: she’s pregnant. So of course, Margot tells Claude who in turn tells Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) and her teenage babysitter Maisy (Halley Feiffer), and Pauline has to tell Malcolm before he hears it from someone else. And of course, because Margot is in the middle of separating herself from her husband (John Turturro), she starts an affair with Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), Maisy’s father. Oh, and because Margot can’t cause enough damage, she constantly states that marrying Malcolm is a mistake, thinking him to be a loser, despite everyone else, including Claude, seeing him as a nice good-guy type. And then she snaps at the rude behavior of Pauline’s next-door neighbors, which starts another conflict.

Yes, it’s clear that Margot is mostly an unlikeable, fixated, selfish woman who manipulates her family and others around her, with Pauline being the butt of manipulation for the most part. Her positive qualities are her genuine love for her son (despite a questionable decision later in the film) and at times a certain respect for her sister—if she wasn’t going through a failing marriage, she’d probably be happy for Pauline and more respectful for Malcolm (though to be fair, Malcolm does have a flaw that is revealed midway through the film).

It’s brilliantly ironic that the happiest occasion—a wedding—provides the course of problematic, emotional scarring for this dysfunctional family. It’s almost like an opposite version “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movie; drained of energy, showing the real deal, and hardly any room for compromise. Margot is a mother who is blatantly honest in her observations and hurts those around her, whether intentional or not, and for the most part it is, just so she can come off as “sophisticated.” This is the kind of thing that Baumbach has to be praised for—showing skill in leaving discomfort with realistic situations and characters who talk like natural people would talk. Sometimes, there’s wit; other times, there’s honest truth; mostly, it all sounds very natural. It’s as if Baumbach knows to draw the fine line between appalling and truthful, and at times you get laughs from the darker wit-aspects.

Kidman delivers one of the best performances of her career, showing no fear in making Margot as pathetic as she doesn’t like to believe she is and somehow finding a way to show that the character is not a one-note caricature—there are times when she does care for those around her. Jennifer Jason Leigh presents an appealing Pauline, who is a nice woman but also flawed herself in how she defends herself from Margot’s remarks. And you really buy Kidman and Leigh as sisters, as they bicker but also have genuinely-sweet moments together when there’s nothing to fight about. The supporting cast is good, especially the young actors who deliver personality and appeal. But Jack Black, usually known for broadly-comedic roles, is probably not as successful as he could be in a role like Malcolm, but he’s not terrible at all—it’s the quiet, low-key moments that he’s able to pull off, while he can’t quite handle the louder moments.

Like I said, people will either get into “Margot at the Wedding” or you’re put off by the Margot character and how good Kidman is at making her unlikeable. With an unhappy universe in which the film takes place, is it effective? For me, it is. It spoke to me and I admired it for the characterizations and craftsmanship…

I’m just glad I’m not Margot’s son.

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