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Volume 77, Number 26 | November 28 - December 04 2007


Margot at the Wedding
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Now at the Angelika
18 West Houston St. at Mercer
(212-995-2000; angelikafilmcenter.com)

Courtesy Paramount Vintage

Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh deliver powerful performances in “Margot at the Wedding”

The wedding crasher

By Leonard Quart

The indelible signature of Noah Baumbach’s first three films has been the wryly humorous and perceptively affecting depiction of relationships. In his 2005 “The Squid and the Whale” — his most poignant, emotionally pointed, and artistically successful work — he made a film whose sense of absurdity is tinged with genuine pain and pathos throughout. A semi-autobiographical, utterly honest film, it was his first truly personal work, and one whose comic sense deepened rather than trivialized his characters’ problems.

In his latest film, “Margot at The Wedding,” he again uses his trademark comic/pathetic approach to portray muddled and painful family dynamics. The emphasis this time is on the relationship between two estranged, highly neurotic sisters. They are played free of constraint (with almost every discordant and self-revealing note on target) by a more spontaneous than usual Nicole Kidman as Margot, and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach’s wife) as Pauline in her strongest, most nuanced performance since “Georgia.”

Margot, a transcendently self-absorbed and insecure writer, has arrived from New York at the old family house on the beach, with her awkward, pubescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), in tow. She’s there to attend Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm (the ever-clamoring, infantile Jack Black) — an overweight failed painter/musician, who is permanently unemployed.

Margot is in the process of leaving her supportive, grounded husband who doesn’t satisfy her (she also has a more macho, somewhat sadistic writer lover), and Claude is struggling, without much success, to loosen his too-passionate, Oedipal bond with her. She is tense, intrusive, and harshly judgmental — given to sharp-tongued demolition rather than expressions of sympathy. Margot makes it clear to the more free-spirited and open Pauline that Malcolm does not deserve her love, describing him “as the kind of guy we rejected when we were 16.” She even casually puts down her son at times. And she is constantly exploiting what she observes for literary material.

Both sisters are weighed down by their lengthy alienation from each other, and the volatile family baggage they carry. But Pauline still fantasizes they can return to some idealized childhood when they were supposedly closest friends.

Of course, in a Baumbach film nothing is ever psychologically unambiguous. There are constant shifts in attitude and feeling between the sisters, as they engage in their noisy, love/hate, extremely competitive relationship (the competition ranging from a swimming race, to how many men they had sex with in their twenties). These swings are sometimes exaggerated for cruel, but rarely light comic effect. But none of it seems improbable — their behavior is always in character. Of the two sisters, Pauline is viewed as the more compassionate and forgiving. But she too can turn vindictive when feeling threatened by Margot’s hypercritical judgments and behavior. They both not only share malicious hysterical laughter over the plight of a third sister, Becky, who had been traumatized as a child, but, without qualms, go behind each other’s back and use an innocent Claude as a sounding board to disparage the other.

Baumbach has made a very smart film with a minimal narrative — the film moves from scene to scene without clear transitions or genuine closure. It’s one where character is all — the sisters and Claude’s face seen often in tight close-up revealing a wide range of emotions. “Margot” is also a messy film, as chaotic as the sisters’ emotional lives. Sometimes it feels too self-indulgently shapeless, and that it’s straining for humor. Much of what is funny in the film is built around Jack Black’s character, who is likable and has some good lines. But when trying to convey genuine feeling he falls back on his usual outsized comic shtick.

I like the film’s psychological intricacy and intelligent talk, though none of its generally irritating characters engage one emotionally. But it’s an adult, dialogue-based film without gratuitous violence, special effects, and virtuoso cross cutting. In this age that’s a rarity.

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