Saturday, November 24, 2007

Margot At the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding (4/5)

Margot at the Wedding, previously known by its original title, A Weekend of Dysfunction, is the latest film by auteur Noah Baumbauch. I first heard of Baumbauch when he replaced Owen Wilson as screenplay collaborator with Wes Anderson on the divisive The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Both directors share an interest in family dysfunction, which has largely defined Anderson’s later films and Baumbauch’s last film, The Squid and the Whale, was an ugly portrayal of divorce. The difference between Baumbauch and Anderson is that Anderson actually likes people. If there is one thing Margot at the Wedding is not, it’s uplifting.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) takes her son Claude to Long Island for her sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) marriage to Malcolm (Jack Black). Mentioned, but not present, are Margot’s other son, a third sister, and Margot and Pauline’s mother. In the fine tradition of great short storytellers, Baumbauch uses the great Hemingway analogy of the iceberg for story structure, and while we are privy to plenty of sordid secrets that are unveiled over a series of days, you can’t shake the feeling that there is even more hiding under the water. In other words, it’s the kind of film Freud would gleefully add to his DVD collection.

I’ve never been a big fan of Nicole Kidman but she does a great job as a character who is entirely unredeemable. This isn’t some lovable goof who’s just a little selfish, this is someone who mentally abuses her son, someone who becomes angry at others when they do something altruistic because it makes her feel bad that she wouldn’t do the same thing. There is absolutely nothing likable about Margot. Pauline and Malcolm aren’t too far behind. Malcolm is an unemployed “letter writer” who, when frustrated, is prone to yell profanities at Pauline. Pauline is the most likable of the three but at times can seem weak and it’s suggested that she’s marrying Malcolm out of desperation. John Turturro shows up part way through the film as Jim, Margot’s husband, to remind us that truly good adults do exist, and also to remind us that John Turturro is still a kick ass actor, and to make us wonder why the Coen Brothers didn’t cast him in No Country For Old men since he’s been in most of their movies anyway – I mean, he was Barton Fink in Barton Fink for chrissakes – you would think they could have squeezed him in someplace, maybe a cameo like he has here or something.

With the exception of Jim, the only decent human beings are Claude and his cousin Ingrid. Much like The Squid and the Whale the children are used as proxies by the adults so that they can air out their frustrations and to covertly disseminate damaging secrets without being held accountable. At the end of the film Margot has to make a decision to stay at her son’s side or to leave him behind. I won’t tell you what she decides but at the time I thought it would be better to have them separated.

Unlike The Squid and the Whale the film is more concerned with the adults than the kids so we spend most of the time with characters we cannot relate to and any sort of emotional growth is nonexistent. This is a brave decision when you ask the audience to loath people they’re going to spend two hours with. But why not? There are terrible people in the world and why shouldn’t there be terrible people in movies? Reasons why Margot is so dysfunctional are hinted at but any kind of revealing moment where Margot describes a childhood trauma in detail with “Adagio for Strings” is playing is strictly avoided. Perhaps we could forgive her if the film wasn’t so blatant in its portrayal of Margot’s mental abuse of Claude. I can’t promise everyone will like the film but I can promise it won’t leave your mind quickly.


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to let you know that MATW is not Baumbach's second film. He has been making films since the 90s, MATW is his 6th directing gig, his 5th feature film. The Squid and The Whale was simply his breakthrough movie and not his first.

David said...

Duly noted. The article will be edited accordingly. Shows what a simple imdb search will reveal and serves me right for being too lazy to do so. Thanks.