Monday, November 26, 2007

"Margot at the Wedding" -- * * *

MARGOT: “Was that the guy who used to rough you up?”
PAULINE: “No, that was dad.”

It’s no coincidence that Noah Baumbach’s difficult, borderline-impenetrable “Margot at the Wedding” is being released around Thanksgiving. The darkly funny drama is at its core, an analysis of the indefinable beast that is family, and the kind of hate (and to a lesser extent, love) that can rear its head when a haphazard/forced reunion or get-together occurs. While “Margot” has had its strong supporters, its detractors have had a sense of vitriol and loathing in their voice that I’ve rarely heard when discussing a film before, so I had a general idea of the divisive nature I was in for going in. The negative reactions are understandable; it’s ninety minutes merely spending time with unlikable, self-absorbed people, so the feeling of “I get that for free at home, why subject myself to it at the movies?” is certainly valid. With its complex, challenging nature that oozes discomfort, the film practically dares you to like it. I did, but Baumbach doesn’t make it easy.

“Margot” pronounces its intentions at the outset, opening with our young protagonist, Claude (Zane Pais) releasing an unprompted primal scream, giving us an idea of the homespun horrors to come. Largely plot-free—another aspect that seems to be frustrating audiences—the film documents a weekend on Long Island during which Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) will be marrying generally good-natured slacker Malcolm (Jack Black). Perhaps more monumental an occasion than the wedding is its engendering the arrival of Pauline’s sister, the remarkably unpleasant Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude. The film is essentially a 90-minute series of vignettes that serve to enrich our understandings of the characters; basically, Pauline is pregnant with Malcolm’s baby—though she hasn’t told him—and is marrying him out of desperation, Margot disapproves vehemently of Malcolm and barely conceals her disdain, while Malcolm grows a mustache (“It’s meant to be funny,” he says) and fights urges to punch Margot.

Serving as both an examination of familial bonds and a character study of a tremendously complex, cold bitch, “Margot” unfortunately comes on the heels of Baumbach’s most “accessible” film, “The Squid & the Whale.” Whenever an interesting, unconventional filmmaker creates a movie that manages to garner some degree of popularity or accessibility, it almost always causes trouble for their next film unless their next film goes completely commercial. While it creates a higher awareness and initial interest in their film to follow, it also creates an expectation that their new one will be just like the last one and draws in people apt to loathe their latest, which is just as inaccessible or offbeat as the rest of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Baumbach has never made things easy on audiences (even in “Squid”) and despite the presence of bigger stars, his style is just as uncompromising here and doesn’t allow us to draw simple observations or conclusions. For those who liked “Squid & the Whale,” much of that film’s style is here, but with even less humor and even less of a catharsis/resolution (though there is one here, even if you have to squint to see it).

With “Margot,” Baumbach plays a lot with people’s autobiographical interpretations of his films (something that was touched on in literally every review of “Squid”). For a lot of the film, it seems Claude is a stand-in for Baumbach, and at other times, it appears Margot might be a self-loathing depiction of himself; either way, it’s best to just view the film as what it is, a work of cinema, and not read into autobiographical intonations. He has a style of writing that is discomforting in its familiarity, particularly in a familial setting; characters talk knowingly about people we know nothing about (“Poor Becky…”), make inside jokes we don’t get, and offer us nothing in the way of exposition. In back-and-forth exchanges, characters don’t respond to what the other person actually said, but rather what they “heard” or how they took it. Baumbach also employs—to jarring effect—the technique of not allowing us the privilege of hearing characters complete all their sentences. Several times in the movie, midway through a statement (“But you have to—”), Baumbach abruptly cuts to the next scene.

Pauline and Margot speak to/about each other with such blithe cruelty—despite each calling each other their “closest friend”—that midway through, we’re hardly even phased by it anymore (Margot casually comments, “She’ll probably miscarry.”). But there’s a truth and understanding at work here; even though the two sisters literally never say anything nice to or about the other, we can see they love each other, if only out of necessity. In fact, if “Margot” is masterful at anything, it’s capturing the extent to which it’s possible to hate your family like no one else could ever understand, while still retaining some semblance of familial bonds. But lest anyone think there are any answers or resolutions to be found here, there aren’t. Like life, people’s problems and troubled relationships aren’t solved and mended, but rather resigned to and sighed over before just leaving. Like the titular figures in “The Squid & the Whale,” Baumbach goes heavy on metaphor here as well, utilizing a car with no brakes and a massive tree as the main objects of analysis here. From Margot’s failed attempt at climbing the tree to the neighbors complaining that its rotting roots are spilling over onto their property, it’s not particularly difficult to decipher the meaning, but it’s fairly effective.

I’ve always admired Kidman for continuing to work with adventurous directors more than actually being a gushing fan of her performances, but with “Margot,” she delivers a quietly astonishing piece of acting. I’ll have to go back and rewatch “To Die For” and “The Hours,” but I think this may be my favorite performance she’s ever given. Margot, as discussed by others, is incredibly unlikable—Baumbach doesn’t even give her one moment for us to sympathize with her—but she’s not without her humanity and complexity. We may not like her, but she never crosses the line into being “evil” or “a monster.” We’ve all (or at least, I have) met people like this performer and they almost can’t help what they’re doing. Firing off cruel, defensive remarks like tiny little missiles (“Stupid people get into Harvard early all the time!”) and silently loathing herself more than she could ever hate anyone, Kidman is completely in her element here.

Margot is the type of person who feels the need to butt in and take exception to a mother pulling her daughter’s arm too hard, blissfully ignorant of the psychological damage she’s inflicting upon Claude. From her abject nastiness towards Claude during a croquet match (“This is why I hate games, I hate what it does to me”) to her inability to even get herself off while masturbating, Margot is perhaps the most fascinating creature to be inflicted upon the American public in a film this year. She perhaps reveals the most about herself when discussing a character in a story she’s written, commenting that she “Silently resents the responsibility of parenthood.” Baumbach has commented that it’s not important that people like Margot as long as they understand her; with the combination of his writing and Kidman’s performance, this accomplished to tremendous effect. I predict this will go down as the best performance by an Actress in 2007 to get passed over for most major awards. When I re-visit “Margot at the Wedding,” it’ll be entirely for Kidman’s work.

Leigh is given perhaps the trickiest role in the film, as the seemingly “likable” Pauline. While nowhere near as vicious or hateful as Margot, it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for Pauline considering how weak-willed and self-absorbed she is, and it’s also clear she’s marrying Malcolm out of desperation and probably not love. Nonetheless, she’s turned into a real, recognizable human being (like Margot) and in face-offs between the two of them, it’s hard not to take her side. Leigh turns Pauline into a fascinating character in her own right, but never moreso when sharing scenes with Kidman and interacting with or discussing Margot. Whether inexplicably defending her (“You may not like her, but she’s not an idiot…”) or sharing a brief moment of odd kinship (the only time these two are affectionate towards each other are when they laugh hysterically about their other sister being raped by the horse trainer), Pauline is one of Leigh’s best roles.

I’ve always had an enjoyment of Jack Black’s antics from his initial “Tenacious D” days to “Nacho Libre” and found his more subdued, varied work in “The Holiday” and “King Kong” interesting and different enough to indicate the guy’s capable of playing more complex figures. I’m kind of mixed on his turn as Malcolm, but that’s largely due to the performances inconsistency. As basically the stand-in for “us” in this situation, he retains much of his humor while keeping Malcolm grounded and believable as a guy who would write impassioned letters to magazine editors, as well as comment that his scrotum is longer than his penis. His interactions with Margot (noticing a trend here?) are his best stuff in the film and he handles them with aplomb. However, his familiar “Jack Black-isms” seem jarring when they come here and only serve to take, at least me, out of the picture. When he bellows “Watch it, dicksack!” to a passing driver, all I could see on screen was JB, not Malcolm. Similarly, a crying jag he goes on late in the picture is astoundingly miscalculated—I don’t know if the scene was intended to be broad comedy, or Black just doesn’t know how to cry convincingly—but either way, it seems like a misstep, either by Black or Baumbach.

As you can probably tell, I admired “Margot at the Wedding” rather than genuinely felt affection for it, but as a carefully observed study of a cold, affluent family, it’ll probably be difficult for most to muster up much love for its proceedings. I still take issue with most of the content involving Pauline’s redneck neighbors—I didn’t quite understand the significance of it, or why it was in this film—but when the focus was on the central family, I was thoroughly involved. As difficult as it may be to face how bitter or mean families can get to one another, “Margot” always struck me as relatively truthful and intelligent; even though my family may not use the clever words Baumbach utilizes here, the struggles and interactions are painfully recognizable. “Margot at the Wedding” is a tough little film to process and demands more than the average “indie” fare, but its rewards are plentiful, not least of which is Kidman’s stunning performance.

“Margot at the Wedding” is currently playing in 35 theaters nationwide (including Manhattan, Long Island, Los Angeles and Washington DC). A further expansion is set for December 14, though I don’t know if I’d count on it opening at a theater near you.

Despite stellar work by Kidman, Leigh and a carefully observed screenplay by Baumbach, I dare say this film is going to make people so uncomfortable and be so despised, that it will be completely shut out in every category.


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