The Reeler


November 15, 2007

Margot at the Wedding

Baumbach's latest family freak show is more redolent of bad television than Bergman

The best scene of writer/director Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding occurs near its start, when estranged sisters Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) -- reunited in the latter's seaside home for her impromptu marriage to loser-with-a-capital-"L" Malcolm (Jack Black) -- begin reminiscing about their unhappy childhood.

Pauline's deadpan revelation of an embarrassing incident from Malcolm's past ("Go ahead and use that information however you like," he says with thinly veiled sarcasm) inspires the sisters to run down the litany of sins committed against them by the various men in their lives. It all comes back, per Freud and Electra, to Daddy, and as the sisters move closer to the symbolic heart of the matter, the incitements get increasingly outrageous and disgusting, even as the monotonous confessional tone remains the same. By the time incest is breached and superseded, it’s clear that Margot (a parasitic Manhattan author) and Pauline (a passive-aggressive exurban diva) have entered a purely fantastical headspace, incanting the most repulsive things they can think of as a means of catharsis. And then they laugh... uncontrollably and at length.

This is Baumbach's most nakedly confessional scene, more honest and illuminating than any single moment of his more explicitly autobiographical The Squid and the Whale. It is also his aesthetic in a nutshell: Continually raise the bar of dramatic incident but pitch it always on the same colorless wavelength. In this way, disparate details can seamlessly co-exist, with the sisters' casually cruel cracks about Malcolm's mustache hitting with the same level of reductive insight as Margot's pretentiously dreamy observation of the slaughtering of a pig.

A grounding symbol is of immeasurable importance to Baumbach's cinema, hence the giant tree (a favorite childhood plaything of Margot and Pauline) around which the characters' many mini-dramas come to a head. Throw in some adolescent angst in the form of Margot's soft-voiced son Claude (Zane Pais), whose pangs of sexual longing are constantly stoked by his cousin Ingrid (Flora Cross) and by the Lolita-like daughter (Halley Feiffer) of Margot's lover Dick (Ciarán Hinds). Blend with the remarkably intuitive stylings of cinematographer Harris Savides, who creates for Margot a washed-out, flat and knowingly ugly palette, and you've got a Baumbach recipe for success (as well as unutterable hilarity).

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Baumbach fancies himself an artist -- if not a chef -- in profound possession of the varied, eccentric ingredients of human experience, yet both The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding suggest he’s more of a pedantic McDonald’s fry cook blasting Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" through his iPod (in the case of the Long Island-esque setting of Margot, Dylan's refrain most certainly applies: "You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books/You're very well-read/It's well-known"). He's a misanthrope with a poisonous and shallow world view, one that says all of our traumas can be traced back to a specific developmental point; beyond that moment in time, he implies, our behavioral patterns are irrevocably set in stone. Those who subscribe to this perspective no doubt see something penetrating in Walt Berkman's (Jesse Eisenberg) climactic encounter with the museum diorama that provides The Squid and the Whale its moniker, or in the slightly less thudding sequence from Margot at the Wedding where the sisters' tree is felled, but for me it all plays as a mock-defiant shun of both personal responsibility and of the potential for redemption.

Margot at the Wedding is ultimately all affect, a ludicrously jokey freak show subject to the law of diminishing dramatic returns. After the sisters' vulgar trip down memory lane, the film quickly settles into contrived routine, its moments of supposed psychological insight (Margot gets stuck while climbing that damned symbolic tree) and intentionally non-cathartic comeuppance (Dick publicly embarrasses Margot at a book signing) more redolent of bad television: I see a lucrative future for Baumbach on Brothers and Sisters. Leigh is brilliant, as per usual, while Kidman tries -- Lord knows she tries -- to be anything other than a movie star, especially during a starkly visualized instance of solitary sexual release. But to paraphrase Kenneth Halliwell from Prick Up Your Ears, she even masturbates better than we do.

Comments (1)

I thank the Lord for giving us the gift of brilliant preachers!

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