Noah Baumbach was an accomplished chronicler of comic twentysomething ennui (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, Highball) until he took an extended break from filmmaking and re-emerged as an equally accomplished chronicler of tragicomic dysfunctional families. The Squid and the Whale, about an intellectual Brooklyn family dealing with divorce, was his much-heralded comeback picture, followed by the recent and unjustly less-heralded Margot at the Wedding, now on DVD.
A touch less affecting but often far funnier than The Squid and the Whale , Margot at the Wedding follows the title character (Nicole Kidman), a Manhattan fiction writer, home for the wedding of her estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to slightly mangy Malcolm (Jack Black). Margot’s son Claude (Zane Pais), on the gawky cusp of an adolescent growth spurt, comes along, too.
From there, each adult character (save Claude’s gentle father, who turns up later) shows what many critics characterized as relentless unpleasantness. Margot equates honesty with unrestrained, self-centered nastiness; Pauline alternates outrage with sisterly needs; and Malcolm, in his own words, hasn’t “had that thing yet, where you realize you’re not the most important person in the world.”
That last bit of dialogue gets to the core of Baumbach’s talent for creating screwed-up characters that nonetheless generate some degree of sympathy. Even at his most doltish, Malcolm isn’t traditionally stupid; he’s more like a messier, less articulate version of the lost Gen-X slackers in Kicking and Screaming. The focus, though, is on Margot and her ability to turn her own cruelty into self-pity (a few scenes where she berates Claude with quasi-sadness are tough to watch, even relative to the rest of the movie). Baumbach, always a gifted writer, gets the rhythm of a family reunion, even a small one, just right: the dialogue that grasps at common past experiences, as well as the awkward and fumbling of adolescents stumbling through the background.
The movie is far from heartwarming, then, but it is bitterly funny and smartly made; the way the writing and editing conspire to leave many scenes before they’ve been traditionally resolved recalls the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, released around the same time. It may be that Margot at the Wedding is too unflinchingly accurate to garner the same kind of praise afforded to the Coen picture; it’s one thing to tell us that the world is a miserable place, but it almost feels like more of an affront to tell us that a recognizable, realistic family creates equally lousy worlds of its own.
That realism comes not just from Baumbach’s work, but a whole lot of terrific acting. Kidman and Black may be movie stars, but their devotion to these flawed characters matches the always-excellent Leigh. The occasional frostiness of Kidman’s persona makes Margot a logical extension of her weak spots as a star (her roles rarely display the maternal instincts of, say, a Jodie Foster), and Black shows that, like a lot of comedians, he may have a hidden facility for finding quieter notes to match his naturally boisterous humor.
Margot at the Wedding is an intimate movie that may strike some as ideal for home viewing, and given the combination of an art-house theatrical release and several big stars on the box cover, it is fair to assume it will find a greater audience on DVD. But the film is equally illustrative of the diminishing effects of home video. On a smaller screen, the striking grayish cinematography by Harris Savides looks less moody and murkier, and the handheld shots that put you in the middle of the arguments in a theatrical setting feel more distanced.
Baumbach avoids full commentaries — his only full track was recorded for The Life Aquatic, a film he co-wrote with director Wes Anderson. Instead, the Margot at the Wedding disc, like The Squid and the Whale, features a brief overview of Baumbach’s thoughts on the movie, here framed as a conversation between Baumbach and Leigh, his wife, over a montage of moments from the film. It functions, like its The Squid and the Whale counterpart, as a commentary digest, with quick but insightful words on the filmmaking and praise for different aspects of the performances.
This approach is actually more succinct and manageable than a typical full-length commentary, but the disc still feels lacking. A few supporting characters, like Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross), or Maisy (Halley Feiffer, also from The Squid and the Whale), the neighborhood girl Claude notices, or Margot’s aforementioned husband Jim (John Turturro), create such vivid impressions with relatively little screen time that make you wonder if they have their own groups of deleted scenes. But maybe that’s just Baumbach, making us look even closer into his fascinating, semi-miserable world.