December 24, 2007

MOVIES: Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007)

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is -- and there's no polite way to say this -- a fucking mess. She's self-absorbed, manipulative, dishonest, and cruel. She is toxic, bringing out the worst in everyone she knows. On some level, she understands this, and she hates herself for it. That's why she's meanest to her family; they must be punished, after all, for being so stupid as to love her.

Margot hasn't spoken to her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in several years -- we're never told exactly why -- but has decided to bury the hatchet by returning to the family's seaside home for Pauline's wedding. Of course, when Margot buries a hatchet, she buries it in someone's back, and no sooner has she arrived than she's criticizing Pauline's wedding plans and telling her that Malcolm (Jack Black) isn't nearly good enough for her ("he's like boys we rejected when we were 16," she says).

Pauline isn't quite as unpleasant as Margot, but Margot's presence raises the level of tension to the point where she begins to snap at Malcolm and at her daughter, Ingrid (Flora Cross); even Malcolm, a fairly mellow guy and certainly the sanest character in the movie, begins to crack under the pressure.

The irony is that these are all people who ought to have some insight into the human condition, or at least into their own personalities and interactions. Pauline is a teacher; Malcolm a musician and amateur critic; Margot is a writer of short stories who is "very famous to a very few people." But there's no insight here, just an endless festival of cruelty.

It's well performed, and Kidman in particular deserves credit for her lack of emotional vanity; she never attempts to soften Margot's edges or make her likable in any way. Leigh doesn't get to play the more normal partner in any relationship very often, and she does fine work in this rare sympathetic role. Jack Black is out of his league in their company, and tends to fall back on the broad comic shtick that works in his usual roles; it's not very effective here. In his first film, Zane Pais makes a strong impression as Margot's son, Claude; he's just on the edge of puberty, and in one of her most vicious moments, Margot delivers a lengthy critique of the way his body has changed, and Pais underplays the scene nicely.

But for all of the good acting, Margot at the Wedding isn't very pleasant to watch. It's ninety minutes of vicious nastiness, and Baumbach hasn't leavened the story with much humor at all (the key difference, I think, between this and his previous film, The Squid and the Whale).

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