Margot At The Wedding

Margot At The Wedding


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"I'm just writing my vows, trying to do something appropriate but also funny - not jokey, but more character-based, you know."

When soon-to-be-wed slacker artist Malcolm (Jack Black) speaks these words to his future sister-in-law Margot (Nicole Kidman), it is like hearing a manifesto for the whole approach that Noah Baumbach takes to screenwriting. His ruthless, often painfully comic attention to the imperfections of character are evident in the unassuming indies Kicking And Screaming (1995) and Mr Jealousy (1997), which he wrote and directed, as well as in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), which he co-wrote with its director Wes Anderson - but it was not until his semi-autobiographical divorce dramedy The Squid And The Whale (2005) earned itself an Oscar nomination for best screenplay that Baumbach would be launched into the world of the Hollywood player.

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Unfortunately, however, what one of the characters in Baumbach's long-awaited follow-up Margot At The Wedding says of an artistic/erotic rival also proves true for Baumbach himself: "Nicest guy I ever met, but he can't play the game."

The Squid And The Whale boasted a wittily honest script and some consummate performances, but it also suffered from being as static as the diorama from which it took its title. Once the astonishingly economic opening sequence had used a doubles tennis game to expose a family-of-four's fractured internal dynamics, the only thing left for the film to do was to reveal those same tensions at greater length and leisure.

Margot At The Wedding revisits many of the themes central to The Squid And The Whale, but also amplifies all its flaws. Once again we have a dysfunctional family, again there is an awkward adolescence, and even the tennis scene from The Squid And The Whale finds its match here in a revealing game of croquet. Yet the one thing missing is a plot - and this time Baumbach's characters and their go-nowhere problems are just not engaging enough to carry us through an hour and a half of grating domestic narcissism.

Free-spirited Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is about to get married to Malcolm at her East Coast home, and much to her surprise, her estranged sister Margot turns up for the occasion with pubescent son Claude (Zane Pais) in tow. No matter that Margot's real motive for coming may have more to do with a scheduled appearance at a local bookstore to talk about her short stories (all ruinously plagiarised from the lives of her family), or with her extra-marital interest in local writer Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds) - Pauline is just delighted at the opportunity to reconnect with her sister and "best friend". At least, that is, until Margot begins, with typically needy acidity, to undermine everyone and everything around her, including the impending wedding.

Critical to a fault, cruelly aggressive yet terribly vulnerable, more childish than her own teenaged son, and quite probably even more mentally unstable than she imagines everyone else to be, Margot is clearly meant to be an unforgettable on-screen monster, rampaging through her family in much the same way as a Kong or Godzilla might devastate a city – but somehow, amidst all the wreckage, Margot never quite manages to exert the fascination or grab the attention that she so craves.

That she fails so utterly as a character largely comes down to two things. First, the mass of contradictions that is her neurotic stock in trade is, if anything, too obvious from the outset, so that, far from being allowed gradually to discover different aspects of her character as the film unfolds, we just watch the same mercurial conduct being played out time and time again. If the film ends with her whimsically changing her mind, that is all that she has done throughout, without ever developing in any interesting way. Like an oscillating yoyo, Margot may always seem in motion, but she never in fact strays beyond the limits of her carefully prescribed trajectory. With her, it is all up and down, up and down, but never forward – which may be interesting for a therapist, but not alas for the filmgoer.

The second problem with Margot is the way that she is played. For while she may be an annoying character, Kidman's embodiment of her is even more so, in a mannered performance of tics and quirks that never allows us to forget that what we are watching is an actor acting. The film may have been shot entirely in handheld, and may approximate the low-key feel of the best dramas from the 1970s, but Kidman's shrill turn alone is enough to destroy any aspiration to naturalism. Really, Margot ought to be a plum rôle, but Kidman withers it to a prune.

Not that all the acting is so irksome. Though in only a few scenes, Ciarán Hinds is effortlessly assured as Dick, and easily steals the film's best sequence, slyly deflating Margot at her bookstore presentation. Baumbach's wife Jennifer Jason Leigh simply shines as Pauline - and Jack Black, in his most restrained performance in years, is a comic triumph of foibles and insecurities. It is just a pity that all these characters are locked into Margot's malign orbit, unable (at least for the film's duration) to strike out on their own individual paths. Even the great John Turturro, in a brief appearance as Margot's sweet-yet-put-upon husband Jim, is given little to do but play against her, like an interlocutor in what is essentially a one-sided conversation.

So "not jokey, but more character-based" ends up being about right - but with all the interesting characters overshadowed by Margot, and with only the barest of narratives to keep things moving, it is another scene from the film that seems to encapsulate better the current status of Baumbach's artistic powers: the scene where Margot gets stuck up a tree. Let's hope Baumbach can climb down soon, and deliver us a story to equal his wonderful dialogue.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2008
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A neurotic woman undermines her whole family and her sister's impending marriage.
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Chris ***1/2

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Zane Pais, Jack Black, John Turturro, Flora Cross, Ciarán Hinds, Halley Feiffer, Michael Cullen, Enid Graham, Sophie Nyweide, Justin Roth

Year: 2007

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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If you like this, try:

The Squid And The Whale