Reviews

Margot at the Wedding

Vivid impressions that make us look closely into Baumbach's fascinating, semi-miserable world.


Margot at the Wedding

Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Zane Pais, Jack Black, Ciarán Hinds, John Turturro
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount Vantage
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2008-02-19
Website
Trailer

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.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.