Thursday, January 03, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

Movie-blogging resolution #3 for the new year: No more Noah Baumbach. I'm kind of shocked that I gave The Squid and the Whale three stars a couple years ago. Time has caused me to stop thinking of it as an individual, amusing experience but rather as part of the blur of movies about unpleasant, privileged families who act as though their issues are somehow special.

Granted, that's an easy resolution to keep because he apparently won't have anything new out in 2008, although '09 threatens him co-writing an animated adaptation of a Roald Dahl book with Wes Anderson, featuring voices of George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Bill Murray. Hopefully that will be a bit of a bounce-back for Anderson, because The Darjeeling Limited sadly fell into the same category of tedious films about privileged whiners.

Margot at the Wedding

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2007 at the Arlington Capitol #6 (second-run)

Someone once said that happy families are all the same, but that the others are unique in their misery. I don't think that's true, but even if it were, that wouldn't make every unhappy family interesting. This one certainly isn't.

We start with Manhattanite Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude (Zane Pais) taking a train and then a ferry back to Margot's childhood home, where Margot's sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is to marry Malcolm (Jack Black) under the old tree the next weekend. Margot doesn't think much of her sister's fiancé, but then Margot's a snob who hasn't spoken to her sister in years; the trip to the shore is also a way to avoid her husband Jim (John Turturro) and see her lover Dick (Ciaran Hinds).

This family's particular dysfunction - which nobody suffers from worse than Margot - is the inability to shut up. The sisters cannot be with another person for more than a few minutes without saying something nasty, no matter how much better they'd be served by silence. It's not particularly witty, revealing, or entertaining nastiness, either - as near as I can tell, several of these characters are just mean and thoughtless, and what's gained from watching that be served up? Realism, I guess, but is that enough reason on its own to sit through a movie this dingy and morose?

Writer/director Noah Baumbach clearly thinks so; Margot at the Wedding shares an obvious kinship with his previous film, The Squid and the Whale. Both can be described as pitch-black comedies, are told from the point of view of a teenager watching his family of writers and academics collapse, and don't flinch from the dysfunction they exhibit. I've admittedly cooled on The Squid and the Whale since I first saw it, but at least that had someone like Jeff Daniels's Bernard, who was as ridiculous and repulsive as anybody in this movie but also seemed complex and human enough to at least be interesting. I wouldn't be surprised if Margot was nearly as drawn from Baumbach's life as Squid was said to be, although the process of making the characters less obvious stand-ins for real people seems to have sapped something from them, making them feel less real and specific.

The really sad thing is, the details and depth that might have made these characters interesting as well as believable probably exists somewhere in the heads of the filmmaker and actors. The performances never hit a false note, and there is obviously history between the characters. Kidman and Leigh are especially good as sisters; there's familiarity, disdain, and begrudging affection between them. Kidman in particular deserves to be in a better movie, displaying several facets to her character, selling us on her being fond of her family members even though she often doesn't know how to deal with them. Jack Black has had his usual manic energy toned down, but he does a good job of playing Malcolm as an outsider a bit out of his league but not unbelievably naïve (he has been seeing Pauline for a year, after all). Zane Pais, Flora Cross as Pauline's daughter Ingrid, and Halley Feiffer as the neighbor's daughter represent the younger generation well, awkward and a little messed up without seeming too clever to believe.

Films like this sometimes feel like they would make perfect sense to the people making it because they've been living with the characters for months and when they see the end result, they see all the context and backstory that makes it feel like a well-rounded film. The rest of us, though, just see what's on the screen. Sometimes, that's a movie that, while it doesn't present all the details, still speaks to something in the audience because it lets us in on enough that we feel a kinship. And maybe, if you've got a Margot in your family, this movie is like that, something a little too true for complete comfort but cathartic in how it shows others dealing with the same issues.

But if you don't, they're just Baumbach's characters' issues, and he never manages to convince us that they are either universal or interesting enough for outside attention.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with two other reviews

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