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Margot at the Wedding

A Wrenching Family Drama

Margot at the Wedding, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale is, like its predecessor, a “country house” family drama. Less autobiographical and just as acutely insightful into family dysfunction, Margot at the Wedding is also self-consciously rough-edged. It also features a riveting performance by Nicole Kidman at her least sympathetic and solid supporting turns by Jennifer Jason Leigh as the title character’s sister and newcomer Zane Pais as Margot’s teenage son.

Writer Margot Zeller (Nicole Kidman) arrives with her younger son, Claude (Zane Pais), ostensibly for her sister Pauline's (Jennifer Jason Leigh) upcoming wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed musician/painter, at the family home somewhere in New England. Margot's also in town to get away from her troubled marriage to Jim (John Turturro), a novelist who specializes in experimental fiction, and to give a reading at a local bookstore with her longtime friend and ex-lover, Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds), a successful historical novelist who lives a short drive from Pauline’s bayside property.

Not surprisingly, Margot disapproves of Pauline's decision to marry the coarse, unattractive Malcolm. Pauline has a teenage daughter from her first marriage, Ingrid (Flora Cross), who seems to get along well enough with Malcolm and even better with Claude, who she sees as a potential confidante. Dick's teenage daughter, Maisy (Halley Feiffer), babysits the younger Ingrid, who doesn’t seem to need the extra supervision. Attracted to the older Maisy, Claude is both witness and victim to the conflicts that arise when hyper-competitive, neurotic siblings spend time together under less-than-ideal circumstances. Not surprisingly, family secrets from the innocuous to the hurtful surface during Margot’s conflict-ridden stay with Pauline and Malcolm.

In focusing on a particular type of family dynamics, specifically the lifestyles of smart, verbose characters who’ve had a lifetime to cultivate their individual neuroses, it’s clear that Baumbach had little interest in making the adult characters sympathetic, relatable, or likeable, with the exception of Margot’s husband, Jim, who appears in just one scene. Margot is monstrous in her self-centered insensitivity, mercilessly criticizing everyone in her family, including Claude, with razor sharp putdowns. Pauline may be more balanced or at least less critical, but calling Margot her long-estranged sister her “best friend” indicates a penchant for wishful, unrealistic thinking that doesn’t bode well for her future with Malcolm. That only leaves Claude and, to a lesser extent, Ingrid as the two most sympathetic characters in Margot at the Wedding.

With a shortage of likable adult characters, Margot at the Wedding doesn’t make for easy viewing but, then again, Baumbach wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. As commendable as Baumbach’s unfiltered, uncompromising approach to the subject matter may be (and it is), he missteps by including an awkward subplot involving Pauline’s working class neighbors, the Volgers. For all their bad manners, meanness, inattention to appearances and apparent mistreatment of their children, the Volgers seem to have stepped out of a horror film. What exactly are we supposed to think about them? Did Baumbach include them for comedic value or to make Margot and her family more tolerable to moviegoers?

Sadly, Baumbach uses all the markers hip, edgy moviegoers are expected to notice when watching a serious indie film, e.g. shaky handheld camerawork, jump cuts, jagged editing, and off-frame compositions. Baumbach took the indie aesthetic even further by asking his cinematographer, Harris Savides (American Gangster, Zodiac, Elephant), to rely primarily on natural lighting for the indoor scenes, resulting in murky, sometimes indecipherable shots. Baumbach apparently wanted audiences straining to follow the "sisters on the edge of a nervous breakdown" storyline. To be blunt, it’s an inelegant solution to a non-existent problem.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars