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I just saw Margot at the Wedding at the Telluride Film Festival. My first reaction was that I liked it, but not as much as The Squid and the Whale. My friends and I started talking about it afterwards though and we ended up staying up nearly all night talking about it. It has some funny moments but it is DEFINITELY not a true comedy. It is one of darkest films I've seen in a while. It seems like a simple story but the more you think about it, the more you realize is there. There is definitely a Bergmaninfluence here, especially from Persona, which Noah Baumbach confirmed when I talked to him at the festival. Nicole Kidman's and Jennifer Jason Leigh's characters are sisters, but there came a point where they almost seemed to be extensions of the exact same character. The characters inhabit a very bizarre world filled with clues about doubles, pedophilia, possibly incest, and more. Baumbach didn't necessarily agree with everything I and some other students said about some of the film's meanings, but he did acknowledge that he was glad we were making our own interpretations and that any interpretation was legit. Overall the more I think about this movie and discuss it with my friends, the more I admire it for its darkness and depth. The script is really sharp with many subtle references and the performances are all very impressive. Just keep an open mind and discuss it afterwards to really get to the bottom of some of the film's rich complexities. See it!
What does it say about your wedding when your estranged sister's
attendance is a bigger event than the wedding itself? I mean, it's
right there in the title of Noah Baumbach's dysfunctional family
disaster movie. It isn't called "The Wedding" or "Malcolm and Pauline
Get Married". No, it's called MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. If your sister at
your wedding causes that big a stir, perhaps the invitation would have
been better lost in the mail. Still, despite her better judgment and in
the interest of progress and healing, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
does invite the sister she still refers to as her closest friend after
years of not speaking, to her intimate affair. It is clear her idea was
not her best from the moment Margot (Nicole Kidman) steps off the boat
and on to the New England shore. Pauline sends her fiancé, Malcolm
(Jack Black), to pick Margot and her eldest son, Claude (Zane), up from
the ferry. She claims to be making last minute arrangements back at the
house but I suspect it was she and not the house who was not quite
ready to receive. Then, when the two are finally face to face, standing
in front of the house they grew up in, they smile and make pleasantries
but fidget hesitatingly before actually embracing. That awkward moment
grows into a whirlwind of deep-seeded pain before long and suddenly
rain on the blessed day is hardly the biggest worry for the
Baumbach scored last time out with his Oscar-nominated THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. He was lauded for his sensitive and honest tale of divorce and how it affects the entire family unit. With MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, he solidifies his reputation for creating believable family ties based on dependence, dysfunction and subtle admiration. Watching the sisters as they sit around the house catching up is voyeuristic as we are often privy to conversations that feel as though they were not meant to be heard. As the sisters flip through old records in their even older house, Baumbach writes decades of experiences into his characters and we, like Malcolm, are latecomers to this dinner party. Director of photography, Harris, draws us even closer to this inner circle by shooting mostly hand-held footage in natural lighting and with older lenses. The resulting tone is dark and grainy but nostalgic and rich with history at the same time. At times, we are the quiet cousin who says nothing but stands in the corner with a camera and follows the drama from room to room. It isn't long before we learn how to interpret the vernacular of this particular family and we find ourselves laughing along inappropriately at the expense of whomever Margot is lovingly ridiculing at the moment. As we laugh though, we care as well.
Kidman and Leigh (Baumbach's wife) are both marvelous as they walk the very tightly wound lines of their borderline personalities. Baumbach guides their performances into textured characters that seem natural as sisters and strongly rooted as multifaceted people who struggle to be themselves when in the presence of the other. They even possess archetypal qualities without coming across as contrived. Margot is the master of deflection. She is constantly doling out psychological diagnoses to those around her to avoid any fingers pointing back her way. It never dawns on her that as a writer, she actually has no formal foundation to base her opinions on. She cannot understand why Pauline would settle for Malcolm; she picks at Claude to keep him closer; she even attacks her husband (John Turturro) for his good nature because it just makes her feel like a bad person. She is a fatalist to Pauline's hopeful but defeated optimist. Pauline is damaged but wants to heal and has done so much more than she gives herself credit for. She teeters back and forth between making sneaky, subtle jabs at her sister, habits from her youth, and building new connections so that she can have the sister she always wanted instead of the one she has always had. Only, in the house that Baumbach built, the answer to whether people can ever truly change is not the least bit clear.
Family, even the best examples, can be tricky to negotiate. Spending any extended period of time with the people who both influenced you and hurt you the most in your life can be exhausting. That said, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING can be no less trying. There are those who revel in watching others with deeper dysfunction then their own. It helps them to feel that their lives are not nearly as bad as they thought. There are also others who feel they have enough to juggle already with potentially damaging weddings of their own to survive coming up fast. Why then immerse yourself in a tornado of neuroses and painful memories that are not even your own? Truthfully, you don't have to. Along those lines, Pauline never needed to invite her sister to her wedding either. Only if she hadn't, she would have missed out on everything the experience taught her about herself and the potential for progress. This is the genuine beauty of Baumbach's work. He shares so intensely and personally that he inevitably forces the viewer to deal with their own inner-Margot.
While I was less enthusiastic about "The Squid and the Whale" than
most, it clearly had it merits. In particular director Noah Baumbach
obviously worked extremely well with his actors, drawing fine
performances from all. Its not surprising that actors took note of this
new talent on the block. To their credit, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason
Leigh and Jack Black all worked for way below their usual fees, simply
to do this movie with Baumbach.
All three turn in great performances. There's no doubt about that. The thing is when all is said and done, watching dysfunctional families is not necessarily riveting viewing. At some point you ask yourself, do I really need to see this? "Margot at the Wedding" leaves you with very little other than the performances.
Watching people act out is not art. There really has to be more than this.
Baumbach was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay for his
amusing, spot-on study of a New York literary intellectual family in
crisis, 'The Squid and the Whale.' As befits one who received accolades
and some little box office success, he has moved forward with similar
themes and a better budget, and was able to enlist not only several
more well-known actors but a famous cinematographer, Harris Savides,
and a renowned costume designer, Ann Roth. Baumbach has also moved
along in time, as it were. If 'The Squid and the Whale' was a parental
breakup mostly considered from the viewpoint of a teenage boy, this
family analysis has more of an adult sibling focus--though there's a
boy on hand who's important. More limited in its time-span than
'Squid,' 'Margot' is more complex in its specifics and in its
conversational delineation of neurotics at play. Just about every scene
is a relationship meltdown. It's a wonder nobody comes to violence. In
fact one character does get kicked in the chest, and a big tree falls
down, doing some damage.
Baumbach himself may understand what all this is about, but the choppily edited and shot piece has too little dramatic structure (despite being very much like a play) to go anywhere or make much overall sense. Despite good buzz from some quarters and urban (especially New York) fans, the young director may lose with 'Margot' a sizable slice of the credibility he gained with 'Squid.'
Pauline (Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh), who lives on the family house on an island, is about to be married, for the second time, to out of work artist Malcolm (Jack Black). Her sister Margot (Nicole Kidman) comes with her young adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais). Ingrid (Flora Cross), Pauline's daughter, is there, and a playmate for Claude. Margot is a well-known short-story writer, and it turns out she's scheduled for a reading at a local bookstore with a former flame, Dick (Ciaran Hinds), whom she seems to want to get together with again. Dick's sexy daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer) is also on hand. Margot has told her husband Jim (John Turturro) not come for the wedding (though briefly he does appear).
Pauline and Margot haven't been getting on well for years, but they both approach this occasion with the misguided assumption that they're nonetheless still each other's best friends and that things are going to be rich and consoling.
But as soon as the good-looking and accomplished, if thoroughly neurotic Margot lays eyes on the fat layabout Malcolm, she goes to work on Pauline to cancel the wedding--even though Pauline reveals she's pregnant. There is a family of nasty neighbors, the Voglers, who want the big tree in the backyard to come down. Its roots are spreading to their property, it's rotting, and it's poisoning their plants, they say.
Margot wants Claude to become more independent, but neither of them is ready for that yet. Nobody seems to be ready for anything, relationship-wise. This is about the only thing that clearly emerges.
One of the problems is in the conception of the main characters. This is not the anguished, edgy Leigh we've often seen in the past but a mellow woman, and despite lack of accomplishment and temper tantrums (which he credibly argues are justified in this crazy situation) Malcolm may have been a sweet guy who clicks very well with Pauline. Margot seems to make trouble for everybody, beginning wit her son. But since she's the most accomplished family member, it's a bit hard to know how to take her. It's a bit hard to know how to take anybody. Complex characters are fine, but nobody in this piece is going in a consistent direction. And this is equally true of the action. Was the wedding meant to have a meltdown before it ever happened?
This is a slice of life in more ways than one. Scenes are constantly cut off and linked to the next by jump cuts, an effect meant to be vérité and sophisticated that tends at times merely to look sloppy. Though Baumbach says he got exactly the look he wanted, it's surprising that the Savides of 'Elephant' and 'Zodiac' would give us so many shots that are seriously under-lit. Again, the effect hovers between original and amateurish.
All this is a shame, because all the actors do great work. The young newcomer who plays Margot's son Claude, Zane Pais, is indeed miraculously natural and believable. Leigh and Kidman do some of their best work, and Jack Black has perfect pitch in every line. There's no doubt that weeks of careful rehearsals on the set, in the house, helped the cast work so well together, and Baumbach knew what he wanted. But it reads as a series of vignettes rather than a film.
I assume you are normal. Whatever that is. Would you ever stop to
Margot is a fish out of water. She would be 'normal' back home. Her pond is Manhattan. Intellectuals. 'Nice' people. Successful. Words of several syllables that easily slip into popular psychobabble - but in an acceptable sort of way. Social affirmation obscures our faults. The world after all is as we, and our friends, understand it to be. A self-selecting reality.
For Margot's sister Pauline, the self-selecting, self-affirming, 'normality' is different. She lives in the countryside. Fulfilment would be a down-to-earth lifestyle with someone who thinks she's great. That man in her life, played by Jack Black, is a very ordinary sort. He doesn't even have a proper job. But they seem content. They will marry under the family tree. In the garden.
As two worlds collide, flaws that could have been overlooked come nastily to the surface. Margot can only return Pauline's sisterly love in a cold, cerebral way. She becomes easy to dislike. We soon doubt her sincerity. Pauline looks more and more pathetic against her accomplished sibling. She becomes easy to feel sorry for. Blood is thicker than water. But it exerts unbearable strain.
In best scenarios, romantic comedies and feelgood movies, love always triumphs over dysfunctionality. If only life was so reliable. With the uplifting coup of family bonds in such films as Little Miss Sunshine or The Darjeeling Ltd. Those movies provided us with reassuring escapism. And I admit they were more satisfying than the rather bleak Margot at the Wedding. But it is this film that gives such niggling pause for thought.
It is easy for box office comedy to turn on family difference that ultimately heals. But it is the less than fairytale endings that we have to deal with in real life. Not funny. Maybe just a bit painful. Like estranged family. Hurts that don't heal in a neat two hours of celluloid.
Margot at the Wedding is not a great movie. Nor a comfortable one. It looks at the fragility of one's persona - or definition of normality - that we use to interact with society. With society's forgiving and less forgiving parts. Parts that are perhaps within our own families. But it does encourage you to think. And there are too few movies out just now that do that.
A typical conversation from "Margot at the Wedding" might go something
"You were always so pretty." "WERE pretty? Does that mean you don't think I'm pretty anymore?" "Why are you responding with all of this passive aggressive hostility? I was just trying to pay you a compliment." "You know, I was noticing earlier today that you have really bad body odor. Does that ever bother you?" "You're such a bitch."
And that's it. Scene after scene of dialogue like this, spoken by one unlikable character to another unlikable character, until you feel like the only possible way for the movie to end satisfactorily is for all of the characters to be impaled on something very sharp and preferably jagged.
Noah Baumbach made an auspicious debut with "The Squid and the Whale," but with "Margot at the Wedding" he makes the mistake of assuming that one person's morbid neuroses are inherently interesting to another. We don't learn anything about these characters, we don't care about them, and we don't like them. You tell me -- do you want to sit through 90 minutes of that?
A box office flop, even for an independent film. It's not hard to see why. This is one of the most emotionally violent movies I've ever seen, and I'm sure many people would find it more than a little unpleasant. But for those of us who can appreciate this kind of material, Margot at the Wedding is a great movie. Even if for no other reason, Nicole Kidman delivers her very finest performance in it. She's kind of going through a Katharine Hepburn-esquire box office poison thing right now, but, as with Hepburn, she's as strong, if not stronger, than ever. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black, as well as the rest of the cast, also deliver excellent performances. There are some issues in the periphery that are kind of weird and underdeveloped, especially concerning the bizarre, half-seen activities of the neighbors. On the other hand, there are some other bits that sit perfectly in the distance, only partly explained, like the entire portrait of Margot's and Pauline's childhood. The movie leaves a lot to ponder about these beautifully written characters. It's rough around the edges, but wonderful for that.
First of all: "Margot at the Wedding" is not a comedy or a chick flick,
as the distributors wanted you to believe - hence, the movie being a
major box-office flop/critical failure. Noah Baumbach's follow-up to
his endearing, critically acclaimed "The Squid and the Whale", is just
as good as his previous film, but much darker and mature.
Margot (Nicole Kidman, in her first good film since "Dogville" - this is her comeback, too bad most people didn't get it) and her son Claude (Zane Pais) go visit Margot's estranged sister, Pauline (the always wonderful Jennifer Jason Leigh), who's about to marry a not very distinctive type (Jack Black, okay for the first half of the movie, but shows no drama skills at a pivotal scene - his performance being the only major letdown in the movie for me). It won't be an easy time for any of them. Baumbach could've done something lighter and gotten another critics' fave like "Whale", but thank God for real auteurs, he did something different, and succeeded on it (at least, in my books!). "Margot at the Wedding" is, right from the title, a homage to Éric Rohmer ("Pauline at the Beach" - by the way, Baumbach's movie was entitled "Nicole at the Beach", but they had to change the title when Kidman was cast), with similarities to Bergman ("Persona", in particular) and Woody Allen's more serious films ("September", for instance, which were already inspired by Bergman). Baumbach's writing is fantastic, very quotable and personal, and the cast got the idea and did a remarkable job (except for Black). A misunderstood gem. 9/10.
Margot at the Wedding (2007), was written and directed by Noah
Baumbach. The family in this film makes the family in Baumbach's "Squid
and the Whale" look like the the Waltons. They are very strange people.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) come together before Pauline's marriage to Malcolm (Jack Black). The plot outline refers to Malcolm as "less than impressive." I would agree, although you could make the case that even though he's a loser, he's a lovable loser. (I don't see it, but maybe Pauline does.)
Margot is a destructive person. She manages to drag everyone down to her depressed level, especially her son Claude and her sister Pauline. (Claude has problems of his own, but they aren't helped by his mother, who is in turn loving and supportive and then hostile and destructive.)
Suspension of disbelief is demanded here. Pauline and Margot have a long talk about how they are no longer physically desirable, and so they'll have to settle for any man that will have them. Has Baumbach looked at Nicole Kidman? I know he's looked at Jennifer Jason Leigh, because she's his wife. Pauline and Margot may have to settle for less-than-ideal men, but not on the basis of their unattractiveness. (Neurosis, yes; unattractiveness, no.)
We saw this movie in a theater, but it should work well on DVD. It's worth seeing if you enjoy films about pathological relationships. The acting was solid, and the camera work was interesting. Just don't expect Beaver Cleaver and his family.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach's style is almost unlike anyone else's in the movies right now; and, as both a writer and a director, he's amazingly compatible working both sides of his talent (his dialogue is the music while his direction--and the nimble editing--provides the rhythm). A small group of erratic, confounding and humorously twisted family members are reunited at a prospective wedding in Long Island, with the estranged Margot (Nicole Kidman) behaving as sort of a ringleader to the inner-chaos (she's not necessarily a reminder of old hurts, but she brings them up anyway, as if it's her duty). Baumbach allows his characters to tease and torment each other with quiet, yet unsubtle prodding, and the free-flowing scenes play out beautifully, just like music. If there is a downside to this style, it's that Baumbach can often be too knowing, and when a line or a performance is too clever it can appear forced. Jack Black was a wonderful choice for Malcolm, the unemployed, slacker-bridegroom who finds swimming pools disgusting and the thought of being famous too threatening because of the rejection involved; however, Black is allowed too much time to find the humor in his slovenly character. He is perfect when he's made out to be the dupe or the target of girlfriend Jennifer Jason Leigh's frustrations, but when he tries to conform to Baumbach's image of Malcolm as an enraged clown, the affectation shows and we lose both the substance and the irony of this man (we get more than we need--and more than we already perceive to be there). Baumbach is also perhaps too brazen staging talks of a sexual nature between adults and children; this works extremely well when the subject matter is touched on by just the younger people, but Margot's relationship with her pubescent son (which Margot already accepts is too entwined) skirts uncomfortable parameters which may be more amusing if the characters on-screen laughed a little too (it's left too blasé). The movie is brittle but never coarse and seldom vulgar; it has a great, wounded heart and very perceptive ears and eyes for passive-aggressive arguments and multi-layered misunderstandings. This family can't get over their neuroses because they don't see themselves as neurotic--only each other, and the world. It's summed up nicely in a scene with Margot and her gift-bearing husband when she tells him, "I hate getting a present that I already have...It makes me feel like you don't really know me." *** from ****
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