I’m guessing there must be a lot of awkward silences around the Baumbach household during the holidays. For, if you thought Jeff Daniels’ misfit academic Bernard Berkman was insufferable in The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical recounting of his famous parents’ divorce, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Margot at the Wedding, which I caught at the Angelika Friday night, is basically a claustrophobic family reunion of damaged, needy, unlikable people, and none more than Nicole Kidman’s monstrous Margot, a brittle, self-absorbed Manhattanite who wreaks emotional havoc on everyone around her despite herself.
I have mixed feelings about Margot. On one hand, as in Squid, Baumbach displays a talent for making sharp, withering observations about people and their foibles, and at its best moments the film captures harsh truths about all of us at our grasping, rationalizing worst. But, these are only moments, and unlike Squid, Margot never really coalesces into a film, playing more as an episodic, occasionally diverting, and mostly repellent string of character observations. More problematic, the tone of the film toward its characters is uneven — some are portrayed as nuanced and multifaceted, but other seem to be around for cheap gags and blunt caricature. While I can’t say I’m sorry I saw Margot — it’s an interesting failure — I also don’t feel like I can recommend it. Hard to sit through in any event, given the people we’re trapped with, Margot ultimately seemed too indulgent and unfocused to warrant paying for. Alas, I thought it might all work out, but the Wedding‘s off. Call it irreconcilable differences.
As the film begins, an androgynous teenager named Claude (Zane Pais) shambles down a crowded train aisle and plops down next to a sour-faced brunette he thinks is his mother Margot (Kidman, solid despite a slipping accent), a successful short-story writer. It’s not — she’s three rows up, much prettier on the outside, and (presumably) much uglier within. Margot and Claude, we soon discover, are headed to the old family homestead somewhere on the Eastern seaboard to attend the wedding of Margot’s estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, also Baumbach’s wife) and her new beau Malcolm (Jack Black, which obviously suggests he might not be the best of catches). The trouble ostensibly begins when Margot takes an immediate disliking to Malcolm, an overweight, unemployed schlub with an ironic moustache, a seething jealousy toward U2′s Bono, and an (admittedly somewhat seductive) slacker philosophy. (His advice to Claude on wanting to be famous: “Make sure you can handle rejection. I can’t. For me, expectation just turns to disappointment. So, ultimately I’d rather not try. It’ll all go black for us soon enough anyway.“)
But, Malcolm or no, trouble was inescapable. In effect, Margot is Godzilla in a floppy pink hat, and everyone else is Japan. As her long-suffering son well knows, the only way Margot knows how to express affection is by running people into the ground, and in any case, everyone at the family gathering is damaged, self-diagnosed, and medicated within an inch of their lives. (Pauline’s pre-teen daughter from a previous marriage — which Margot basically destroyed with a revealing short story in The New Yorker — is convinced she suffers from “adult ADD.”) Throw in a few more randoms — Margot’s gallant husband Jim (John Turturro), Margot’s new boyfriend Dick (Ciaran Hinds), his voluptuous teenage daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer) (who just got into Harvard early — Barnard grad Margot is not impressed), and the next-door neighbors (the Voglers, whom Squid‘s Bernard might charitably call “philistines”) — and simmer. Let’s just say an awkward toast at the nuptials would be the least of this gang’s problems.
At its best, Margot at the Wedding feels both impressively and uncomfortably real. Even if everyone here (as in Squid) treat their children like therapists, which is a tic I’m can’t say I’m accustomed to, Baumbach has a keen sense for the rhythms of innocuous conversation, and how they can suddenly and disastrously go wrong. (I also liked well-observed moments such as when Margot, on a dare, gets stuck in a tree — at first, she’s feeling great about it, and admiring the altered perspective from above, then the bugs start to come out.) And, perhaps due to the semi-autobiographical nature of Squid, there’s some interesting rumination at times about using one’s life to write “fiction.” But, as the film progresses, a divide emerges between the more well-rounded characters (such as Margot and Pauline) and the one-note caricatures, most notably the ridiculously rednecky Voglers next-door, who make Billy Baldwin’s joke of a tennis instructor in Squid seem profound. Their kid in particular comes off as an unholy cross between Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel and the green-eyed kid from A Christmas Story.
And then there’s Malcolm, who starts off reasonably enough but becomes little more than a punch line as the movie goes on. (Note the scene of him running down the stairs, for example, or the rather unnecessary nude shot, which basically seemed thrown in to let the audience laugh in disgust at Jack Black’s ass, love handles, and tighty-whities.) Speaking of which, there’s a late turn in the plot involving an indiscretion by Malcolm that threw me out of the film to some extent. His failing is sad, pathetic, and reprehensible, but I also thought the reactions of the other characters seemed so disproportionate to what he was admitting to that I got confused about some Polaroids shown earlier in the film, and had to read the script when I got home to make sure I’d seen things right the first time.
At first, there’s some tension between Margot’s impression of Malcolm (“He’s so coarse, he’s like guys we rejected when we were sixteen“) and the actual character, whom Pauline and Claude seem to like well enough. But he finishes the movie a blubbering, simpering joke. Granted, nobody else in the film is very likable either, but his character in particular reflects Baumbach’s tendency in Margot to get ham-handed and cartoonish at just the wrong time. (See also the rat in the pool, the pig carving, the “family bond” bracelets, any of several Oedipal moments, and other capital-S Symbols that slap you in the face every so often throughout.)
In short, Margot at the Wedding isn’t terrible, but it definitely feels like a misfire for Baumbach after Squid and the Whale (and isn’t much fun to sit through in any event). Hopefully, he won’t have to plumb too deep into his own familial id to get back into form next time ’round.