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Dustin Putman

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Margot at the Wedding  (2007)
2 Stars
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Zane Pais, Flora Cross, John Turturro, Halley Feiffer, Ciarán Hinds, Seth Barrish, Matthew Arkin, Michael Cullen, Enid Graham, Justin Roth.
2007 – 91 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for sexual content and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 21, 2007.
There is a telling moment midway through "Margot at the Wedding" when the title character (Nicole Kidman) describes flirty teen vixen Maisy (Halley Feiffer), daughter of her on-the-side lover, as "insufferable." The viewer considers her observation, and nods in acknowledgment. The thing is, Margot could just as easily have used that word to describe the majority of the characters in "Margot at the Wedding," including herself. They are a miserable, unhappy lot, and their sadness is warranted due to their own vindictive, critical and despicably contradictory natures. Watching them interact in this dialogue-centric art-house dramedy is not without its pleasures—performances are generally ace; the writing has a sophisticated literary twinkle—but it is also not without its misgivings. Simply put, to spend time with these people is unpleasant and without a payoff (or an emotional release) to reward the audience's efforts.

Having been on the outs for some time, New York-based writer Margot and pubescent 14-year-old son Claude (Zane Pais) return to the home she grew up in to attend the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Margot claims she wants to put aside their differences, but her actions argue otherwise. Sure, Margot puts on an initial air that all is well, but she is egregiously passive-aggressive, smug to those around her and even worse behind their backs. When Pauline confides that she is pregnant and asks her to keep it between them, Margot wastes no time in blabbing the confidential news to Claude, who in turn tells Pauline's daughter, 12-year-old Ingrid (Flora Cross). While Margot also lets it known that she thinks Pauline's hubby-to-be, a directionless lug named Malcolm (Jack Black), isn't good enough to marry, she is torn herself over whether to stay with her own husband, Jim (John Turturro), or turn her affair with Dick (Ciarán Hinds) into something more. As the wedding nears, secrets come out, relationships crumble and the controversy over tearing down a childhood tree in the backyard flames, Margot exposes herself to either be a Borderline Personality Disorder sufferer or just a crummy mother, sister and friend.

"Margot at the Wedding" contains the same bitter and cutting tone as writer-director Noah Baumbach's well-liked last feature, 2005's "The Squid and the Whale." The difference is that the earlier film's portrayal of family dysfunction felt painfully authentic and candid, whereas here it edges awfully close to caricature. In tackling his own acerbic, pretentious version of a slice-of-life in the manner of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer—the very title is an homage to such Rohmer classics as 1972's "Chloe in the Afternoon" and 1983's "Pauline at the Beach"—Baumbach has conceived of lives that are more akin to poison than worthy of being sliced, diced, or anything else. Margot, Pauline and Malcolm are multifaceted people, to be sure, but their good points—Margot loves Claude even when she poorly expresses it; Pauline is patient and full of love despite others putting her down; Malcolm is down-to-earth when his eyes aren't wandering and his male-chauvinistic mouth is shut—are largely outweighed by quirks and, in Margot's case, a likely sickness that paint them in an unsavory light.

Because Baumbach is pessimistic over the possibility for change within his characters, they are stuck with the emotional maturity of school children; he all but confirms this cynical notion by underscoring one of the final scenes with a Karaoke singer warbling Stephen Bishop's "On and On," and another climactic moment finds Margot yet again criticizing Claude (this time, over his sunglasses) before they are to part ways. Indeed, the most sane figures on view are the kids; Margot and company could stand to learn a thing or two from the level-headed, albeit sexually curious, Claude and Ingrid. Newcomer Zane Pais is eye-catching as the introspective Claude, handling a lot of difficult and mature material with an unwavering naturalism and sympathy. One could do without the indulgent moment where he announces to his mom that he masturbated the night before, but other scenes, including one where Margot nastily picks apart the ways Claude is changing as he grows up, are heartbreakingly performed by Pais.

Nicole Kidman (2007's "The Invasion") deserves a heap of credit for essaying a character who isn't likeable and making Margot someone you nonetheless are interested in watching. Kidman finds a few redeeming qualities in Margot's psyche, but they only serve to redeem her for the twenty seconds leading up to her inevitable next cruel action that causes us to despise her all over. As the less confrontational but still short-tempered Pauline, Jennifer Jason Leigh (2005's "The Jacket") is effective in the role of an aging late-thirtysomething whose dwindling hopes of being noticed by the opposite sex has led her to settle for the oafish Malcolm. Mentions of familial discord and abuse in these sisters' younger days is brought up, perhaps suggesting the source of their present-day hang-ups, but it isn't explored in any depth. Finally, as Malcolm, Jack Black (2006's "The Holiday") is fine in the less demanding moments, free of his typical comic sensibilities, but close to dreadful when called upon to emote with tears.

There is no plot to speak of in "Margot at the Wedding." As slickly photographed (in Upstate New York) and stimulating as it is in the moment, the film is but ninety straight minutes of family members and acquaintances biting the heads off of each other. The open-ended conclusion additionally seems unfinished and unsatisfying. By this point the viewer knows what is bound to happen next, but the lack of mobility and growth in these characters' souls is frustrating and kind of depressing. One can only hope that Claude grows up quickly so that he can escape his mother's clutches. Alas, by then, the damage will probably have already been done and he will be destined to live out his adult life just as troubled and discontent as Margot. And the cycle continues, on and on.
© 2007 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman