Starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, John Turturro, Ciarin Hinds, Zane Pais, Halley Feiffer, Flora Cross
Written By: Noah Baumbach
Directed By: Noah Baumbach
Noah Baumbach’s previous film, The Squid and the Whale, is one of my favorite films of the last few years. It’s pitch-perfect mix of uncomfortable human comedy and and dysfunctional family drama brought him to the forefront of American independent film. The film had, in my opinion, one of the best endings since Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows. Needless to say, I had high hopes for his follow-up, Margot At The Wedding.
His newest film neither as good as I wanted it to be nor as bad as it could have been. Starting from the same base of family dysfunction, the film centers around two sisters, semi-famous writer Margot (Kidman) and troubled professor Pauline (Leigh), the latter of whom has broke years of silence to bring everyone to the family house she now inhabits for her wedding to the schlubby and pathetic Malcom (Black). Margot is an emotionally troubled and complicated character, whose relationship with her loving and naive son Claude seems to take a central part of the film’s plot. As the film progresses, the relationship between the two sisters appears to affect everyone around them, as their fractured friendship brings out old wounds and troubles that begin to tear apart the already miserable relationship between Pauline and Malcolm.
Baumbach puts together the film with a very similar approach he used for Squid – quick scenes that built character more than plot, leaving many story ideas to be discovered as the film progresses. However, the film’s biggest flaw is that by presenting two very emotionally inconsistent characters from the forefront, the viewer has trouble deciding who to sympathize with, or if at all it is worth offering anything but pity for the characters. Ultimately it is Claude through whom the film is best focalized; he maintains a wide-eyed fascination with all of the surroundings, and becomes the most ‘normal’ character, even if his close relationship with his mother borders on creepy.
The performances, music, and cinematography are what for me tend to keep the film going. Done by other filmmakers, this film could have been dead on arrival, but Baumbach’s tendency to keep the pace quick and the scenes short allow the story to keep moving and the audience’s interest to continue. Still, the story isn’t nearly as fun or interesting as Squid, and it harbours a very depressing undertone that is propagated by the tendency to film mostly on cloudy days. For some reason, leaving the theatre I possessed a fairly vacant feeling, something that I had felt during the first time seeing Squid, but ultimately this time around I thought that something was missing. Maybe it was that I wanted it to be a masterpiece, but instead it was only just above-average.
Early reviews and comments about the film tended to liken it to the work of Eric Rohmer; even its original title was to be a direct reference to one of his films. However, I see far more connection with the work of Louis Malle, particularly Murmur of the Heart. In that film, the relationship between the mother and son develops a rather disturbing Oedipal complex, something that Margot at the Wedding never quite reaches, but nonetheless offers as a bizarre possibility. Baumbach strives for a general un-Hollywoodness in the film, something that he achieves relatively easily. I know that it was quite well-received in Canada, and I imagine it will do quite well overseas, but I’m curious to see if it is at all understood by an American audience. The star power alone will draw some crowds, but this is a film for fans of art cinema, psychologically complex works that offer far less plot than they do introspection. More than anything though, I hope Baumbach still continues to make films like this. American cinema needs more people like him.
Bottom Line: A humorous, interesting, and complex psychological exploration into family dysfunction.
Running Time: 92 minutes