Margot at the Wedding
by Jef Burnham
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Though he had directed three films before 2004, Noah Baumbach didn’t find an audience until his name showed up alongside Wes Anderson’s in the screenwriting credits of the wonderfully imaginative The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In 2005, he garnered substantial credit for himself as a director with his semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale, which illustrates with an impressive degree of honesty and realism the ill-effects of a divorce on the children.
With these two films in mind, my expectations for Baumbach were high, but his latest effort, Margot at the Wedding, is a vile exhibition of human negativity, which follows an irredeemable lot of utterly detestable characters with perhaps a small handful of decency among them.
When Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude, played by newcomer Zane Pais, show up for her sister’s wedding, the hyper-critical and manic depressive, elitist Margot starts stealing pills and butting into everyone else’s business and everything falls apart, including her sister’s engagement. Margot is so despicable that her soon-to-be ex-husband Jim (John Turturro), the only character of any worth, is ushered out of the film almost as soon as he appears. Her reason for the necessity of his departure— his kindness reminds her of just how awful she is.
The film fails to embody even a fraction of the charm of his last two projects, in which characters could be despicable, but retain an impressive level of accessibility. Whilst the film opens with a good deal of humor, it quickly degenerates into an endless string of insults and gratuitous melodrama. At times, the only relief for the audience is the knowledge that Jack Black, who plays Malcolm (the groom in the title’s wedding), may return in the next scene. Black provides some desperately needed laughs in one of the most affable performances in the film as an unemployed qausi-musican/painter, who spends most of his time writing letters to magazines, looking at himself naked and fantasizing about teenage girls.
Baumbach’s usually spot-on dialogue takes a dive early in the film. “What was it about Dad that had us fucking so many guys?” Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) asks Margot. Apparently it is impossible for male screenwriters to imagine a woman attempting to cope with father issues in any way except promiscuity, or to engage in sexual acts for pleasure. But the worst exchange of dialogue in the film is between Margot and Claude. “Did she just poop her pants?” Claude asks, as his aunt Pauline darts behind a tree and strips off her soiled panties. “It happens to everyone,” Margot replies, “not just babies. Someday it’ll happen to you.”
I wish that I could say more positive things about the film, which focuses on the same sort of crises as any Bergman film might, but without any of the style or grace exhibited by the Swedish master. Like Jeff Daniels’ character in The Squid and the Whale, many characters in Margot at the Wedding, including Margot, are writers who received some critical acclaim early in their careers, but failed to draw an audience. In a Q&A at a bookstore, Margot is asked if one of her characters’ bad parenting was meant to reflect her own inability to connect with her children, which makes me wonder if Baumbach’s use of these writers as characters will ultimately be reflective of his own early success as a filmmaker, only to find himself alienating his audience with insufferably mediocre films such as Margot at the Wedding.
Jef Burnham is a film critic and freelance writer living in Chicago.
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