Margot at the Wedding is powerfully acted, sharply written, and extraordinary in its character development and detail. But despite all of these strengths, it will leave audiences feeling like they just paid ten bucks to swallow a cup of cold gravel.
It's possible that Margot could be an example of reverse-psychology when it comes to the traditional family movie. By immersing us in one of the cruelest, most hateful families ever to grace the silver screen—and then by holding us under those murky waters for ninety-two minutes—writer/director Noah Baumbach will make almost anyone grateful for the family they have, no matter how damaged it might be.
And it's a shame, really, because Baumbach is an immensely talented storyteller. His 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming (not to be confused with the 2005 Will Ferrell soccer-dad comedy) was an insightful, hilarious, and moving little movie about post-collegiate crisis and the hard work of moving on into a meaningful adult life. Two years ago, he returned with The Squid and the Whale, an observant and heartbreaking comedy about two boys caught in the crossfire between impossibly selfish and cruel parents.
Where The Squid and the Whale felt like a lament, an exposé of the damage that divorce can do to children, Margot at the Wedding feels almost like an act of revenge. It feels like the artist has opened up a journal where he chronicled all of the evils and ugly misdeeds committed by family members and friends. It may be true-to-life, but the effect of all of this harsh realism is a miserable moviegoing experience.
The title character, played with extraordinary complexity by Nicole Kidman, is a successful novelist who is absolutely insufferable in real life. Her books are ways in which she can vent her own misery, but it doesn't seem to be doing her any good.
When the film begins, Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) are off to "show support" for Margot's sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is preparing to marry her fiancé , a loveable oaf named Malcolm (Jack Black).
But Margot's idea of "support" is the movie's idea of a joke. She cannot contain her contempt for Malcolm, nor can she conceal her desire to tear this relationship down. "He's like guys we rejected when we were sixteen," she sneers, doing her best to sabotage the pending nuptials.
And yet, Pauline and Malcolm make a fine match compared to Margot and her lover, Dick (Ciairin Hinds). Margot—who is married—tells everyone that she and Dick are "collaborating," but Dick's an arrogant and cruel man, quick to judge and punish others, and doesn't hesitate to launch a humiliating attack against a friend in front of a live audience.
Pauline and Malcolm are living in the Hamptons estate where the sisters grew up, and chairs for the wedding guests are being arranged in the yard, beneath a grand old tree that a younger Margot used to climb. If you suspect that the tree is a symbol, you're right. And you're likely to guess what will happen to that tree before this storm is over.
As if this family doesn't have enough trouble among themselves, Margot turns a skirmish between Pauline and her creepy neighbors into a full-scale war. She's quick to intervene if she sees a child being mistreated—a clue, perhaps, about the source of her psychological disorders.
But Baumbach doesn't seem interested in investigating where such fractures come from. He just moves from one nasty exchange to the next. There is no variation in tone: It's just characters spewing bile at all available targets and only occasionally collapsing into one another for something like comfort. At one point, Margot looks out the window to see the neighbors carving up a pig in what looks like some sort of cultic practice. They might be carving up animals, but Margot and company are slaughtering each other.
And when Margot retreats into the house, frightened by the consequences of her own meddling, she starts popping pills that don't belong to her and snooping through her sister's underwear drawers, trying to expose more ammunition to use in her "shock and awe" campaigns against everybody in sight. Then she sits around hating herself—before starting all over again with the same tactics.
When Margot's husband Jim (John Turturro) comes calling, it looks for a moment like a savior has come to the scene. He seems to have some resilience through Margot's attacks, and when he comforts her he seems like some kind of guardian angel. But his faint light is squelched by the chaos that's beyond his control.
And poor Claude, while sympathetic, is just a variation on the pubescent victims in The Squid and the Whale. (What's with Baumbach's preoccupation with alienated teenage boys who leave pieces of themselves behind? In Squid, one boy smeared bodily fluids on the school lockers, and Margot's Claude leaves pieces of his skin in other peoples' rooms.)
Only Malcolm seems to have any sense of the depravity on display, and we find some comfort in his presence until Baumbach—as ruthless in his search for ugly secrets as Margot herself—targets him and leaves him weeping over his own failures. There's more hope for humanity at the end of the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men than there is here.
Sure, we can muster compassion for these characters. After all, Baumbach draws them with intricate detail, so we can see potential in almost all of them, and pity them for the damage they probably suffered in childhood.
We can also marvel at Baumbach's talent. His aesthetic is clearly influenced by the French New Wave films, especially the movies of Eric Rohmer. His sharp ear for dialogue—for the words people say, and the daggers they conceal within them—is a powerful gift. And his apprehension of the damage people do to each other, and how they do it, has served him well in the past, and may lead him to a masterpiece someday. Here, he's drawn out some of the finest acting we've ever seen from Kidman, Leigh, and Black. This extraordinary cast makes these characters convincingly caustic and complicated.
But alas, the accumulation of scenes in which characters degrade each other is ultimately exhausting. Why do we need to see Pauline have a rather messy accident in the middle of a walk in the woods? Is this some sort of helpful metaphor? Do we need any more reminders that these people are full of … well, do I really have to say it?
Many other directors have brought us into family clashes like this. Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen come to mind. But each of them have enough insight to glimpse the possibility of redemption. Or they find enough humor to relieve the tension and prevent us from wallowing in misery. Baumbach's focus on mean-spirited behavior is stifling.
At one point, Malcolm erupts in fury at the cruel and inhumane treatment that the people around him are demonstrating. When Pauline asks him to calm down, he declares. "This is the right reaction! Compared to everything else that's going on, this is right!"
In the same way, viewers will have a right to complain after Baumbach has shoved their faces into so much smelly behavior. In the end, Margot at the Wedding is a story told from a perspective that's as viciously condescending and critical as Margot's own worldview.Discussion starters
- Do any of these family members show genuine love for the others? If you stepped into this mess, how might you try to "fix" it? How might Christian principles be a part of that?
- What is Claude learning from the way these adults treat each other? Who provides the best role model for him?
- Do you think Malcolm and Pauline should get married? What strengths do you see in their relationship? What weaknesses?
- What can you discern about the history of Margot and Pauline's relationship? What were their parents like? What do we know about Becky?
- At the end of the film, what has changed? Who has learned lessons, and what did they learn?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Margot at the Wedding is rated R for sexual content and language. The family members speak profanely and violently toward each other. Sexual misbehavior is frankly discussed. And there is one shocking act of physical violence.
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