Margot at the Wedding
February 8, 2008
With The Squid and the Whale (2005), filmmaker Noah Baumbach reinvented himself by finally discarding the comparisons to Woody Allen that followed his early films (Kicking & Screaming, Mr. Jealousy) and produced a more nuanced, mature film with acerbic wit. His follow-up, Margot at the Wedding (2007), adheres to the same approach – chronicling the trials and tribulations of a deeply dysfunctional family.
The film explores the turbulent relationship between two sisters: Margot (Kidman), a short story writer, and Pauline (Leigh) who is about to marry Malcolm (Black), an unemployed artist. Margot and her son, Claude (Pais), arrive at Pauline’s house and immediately all the old feelings and memories are dredged up. Apparently, they haven’t talked for years and Margot starts in on her sister with little critical comments that don’t seem like much but amount to cruel mind games when you add them up. Margot doesn’t like Malcolm because she thinks that he’s ugly and unemployed. She goes to work on Pauline, planting seeds of doubt in her sister’s head by voicing a concern that her fiancé may be unfaithful.
Nicole Kidman is one of those actors that is brilliant but needs to be challenged by a strong director with a specific vision and/or material that is challenging, like working with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut (1999) or Lars Von Trier on Dogville (2003). In the same year that she appeared in two high profile, expensive commercial flops (The Invasion and The Golden Compass), she made Margot at the Wedding, a much more interesting character piece. With Margot, she gets to create a wonderfully complex character that looks down on those around her because she feels that they are intellectually inferior to her.
Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in another rock solid performance as a smart, free-spirited person trying to reconnect with her estranged sibling only to realize why they haven’t spoken for years in the first place – Margot is mean-spirited. Jack Black is fascinatingly cast against type as a frustrated artist. He doesn’t resort to his usual shtick, effortlessly mixing comedy and drama in a realistic way. It’s great to see him build on the good work he did in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) and The Holiday (2006).
Margot at the Wedding is the anti-feelgood film, populated with unlikable people who are cruel to each other as only family members can. There are many moments of humour, most of which appear in the first half of the film, but eventually the stretches of cruelty that the characters inflict on each other dominate and the film swerves into a bitter, misanthropic tailspin from which it never recovers. As he demonstrated with The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach is not afraid to examine the messy, uncomfortable moments in people’s lives, the toxic relationships between family members, and their sometimes destructive nature. The problem with Margot at the Wedding is that the delicate balance he maintained in the first half is disrupted in such a way that any good will we had to any of these characters is long gone by the end credits.
“A Conversation with Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh.” The two are married in real life and talk about working with Nicole Kidman, praising her skill as an actress. They also discuss how they approached shooting the film – with long takes. Baumbach talks about why he cast Jack Black and she praises the actor’s openness.
Also included are two trailers for the film.