MARGOT AT THE WEDDING [dir. Noah Baumbach]
To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.
Though she hasn’t seen her sister in years, Margot wants to travel to the Northeast to attend Pauline’s wedding. While there, she can hook up with her writing partner/lover Dick, and even work in a reading at a local bookstore. Son Claude has come along as well, and he finds an immediate bond with his distant relatives. He loves Pauline’s compassion, enjoys her fiancé Malcolm’s unmannered pretense, and finds the ongoing property struggle with the neighboring Voglers a source of constant curiosity. As the big day approaches, Margot’s natural buttinski personality takes over, and she questions everything about Pauline’s life - her choice of man (whose jobless and sketchy at best), where she lives (hermetically sealed in the family home), and her obvious lingering animosity. From her perspective, this marriage should never happen. Pauline, however, just wants her sister back, if only to share in her miserable memories of an abusive and empty childhood. Yet while they try to love and support each other, their past keeps coming back to haunt and harm them.
Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference. Nothing is spelled out in this quasi-quirk out, actors with substantial performance chops trying to carry writer/director Noah Baumbach’s idiosyncrasies all the way to the awards podium. Unfortunately, we are dealing with subterfuge so scattered that we fail to see the forest for the failing family tree (which we get a literal example of). This is the kind of film where you don’t learn the character’s professions until midway through. It’s a narrative that hints at parental horrors, but never spells them out in obvious ways. It will introduce characters without explaining who they are or their import (the gay couple at dinner, the oddball next door neighbors) and drop situations that suggest there are major issues that need to be dealt with (sex with a teenage girl, a bad bite mark on a child’s neck).
Instead, what Baumbach hopes to achieve is a kind of snapshot of siblings struggling to reconnect. For Pauline, her ‘famous’ author sister is a constant source of pride…and embarrassment. While they haven’t spoken in years, Margot will take individual tragedy and personal pain and translate it into her own snobbish literature. For the know-it-all authoress, Pauline is a pathetic shell of what she really could be. She settles for men who Margot feel are far too flawed (including new slacker Malcolm) and limits her own potential by hiding inside the clan’s old seaside abode. The wedding itself is a ruse - a chance to get together and trade oh so clever quips and languid insights about the human condition…and we are supposed to convert these hoary heart to hearts into something meaningful.
Unfortunately, Margot at the Wedding doesn’t provide us with a primer. We don’t know why the family fights (though Margot’s use of their past in her fiction seems to drive some of the friction) and the whole issue with the neighbors and a dying tree seems lifted out of a bad TV drama. People as peculiar as the Voglers shouldn’t be feared - they should be locked up by the local authorities. Yet like a novelist without an editor, Baumbach keeps adding more, hinting that there are mountained molehills that the tone of this movie can’t manage. You keep expecting Tom Hanks and Corey Feldman to show up and start riffing on life in the ‘burbs. Since he has the talent to take on the material he wants to address, the mind behind The Squid and the Whale should have let his actors loose. Instead, his sense of surreality constantly hems them in.
The performances are indeed wonderful. While she’s usually a marquee mannequin, Nicole Kidman shows a nice ditzy vulnerability as Margot. She’s also one of the bitterest pills her relatives have ever had to swallow, and she balances both emotions with exceptional ease. Also marvelous is the usually showy Jennifer Jason Leigh. Dialed down to a more dour, reserved presence, she is perfect in a role that requires her to be both strong and stupid, enlightened and lost. When they are on screen together, these stars light up the limited dialogue. Supporting them are substantial turns by Jack Black, Ciaran Hinds, and Flora Cross. Mr. Tenacious D may loose some of his focus toward the end (his crying tends to play as goofy instead of genuine), but he matches wits with Hinds’ haughty outsider expertly.
If there is a weak link in all this thespianism, it’s newcomer Zane Pais. Granted, he has the hardest role in the entire film, trying to portray adolescent coming of age, a parental breakup paradigm, and the budding interest in his long lost relatives all at once. Unfortunately, he’s too unrefined and raw to make it all work. Instead, he seems adrift, his unusually long hair constantly masking the emotion rippling across his face. Baumbach may have a way with words, but he fails to give Claude anything but a series of inquiries and arguments. We never know his place in the vague dust up between Margot, her absent husband, and the man she is sleeping with. Instead, we keep focusing on the tree, and a meaningless shoe that’s supposed to symbolize…something.
Still, anyone who’s got a closet full of mother/father/offspring skeletons will probably connect with this movie on some primitive level. Margot at the Wedding tells a story perfectly poised for those who’ve yet to deal with their ever-present personal baggage. Even worse, it argues that there are no answers, that nosy sisters and reactionary siblings will always stay the same, that therapy brings no closure and relationship seminars don’t teach potential mates anything about staying away from temptation. There is a lot of good motion picture meat here (John Turturro’s cameo as Margot’s husband, Malcolm and Pauline discussing children), but you have to chew through so much mannered fat and gristle that it barely seems worth it. In the end, it’s the performances that will stay with you. The rest of Margot at the Wedding is like that socially mandated ritual - filled with preplanned pomp, resulting in very little actual finality.