Sunday, January 06, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (Noah Baumbach, 2007)

Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are not the closest sisters, and a reconciliation hardly seems imminent in MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. Margot is a fiction writer whose work liberally borrows from her family members' least proud moments. That explains the long chill in their relationship, but Pauline offers an olive branch anyway when Margot comes to visit. It makes little impact as Margot would rather use it to beat her sibling.

Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) have traveled to the island where her parents' home, now owned by Pauline, will host her sister's wedding. Pauline will be marrying Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed schlub who occupies his time writing letters to the editor. Needless to say, he is easy pickings for Margot's withering opinions.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach's last film, the divorce dark comedy THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, depicted domestic fallout in painstaking detail, but MARGOT AT THE WEDDING takes psychological warfare and familial hostility to a higher level. The film portrays a deeply dysfunctional and unsympathetic lot who spit darts at each other as naturally as breathing. They do so in the name of honesty and openness, which makes them blameless in their eyes.

Baumbach remains skilled as ever with well-turned lines and stinging humor. If anything, the two years between films gave him time to sharpen his knives so the jokes would cut with greater precision. The laughs hurt, but one has to appreciate the artistry in such wicked wit.

Yet only so much nastiness can be endured without greater insight into the human condition, or at least these characters. We would flee from these people in everyday interactions. Being stuck with them for an hour and a half can be downright unbearable.

As a kind of theater of cruelty, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING is unarguably successful; however, after choking on laughs for a period, the question becomes whether Baumbach has anything to deliver beyond his misanthropic floggings. Little introduction to Margot and the others is needed to see them for the hateful people they are, but what is the point of subjecting us to this caustic environment if there isn't a larger idea behind observing it?

The ugliness extends to the visual palette. The film has the appearance of being shot through a polarized lens. Cinematographer Harris Savides gives an oppressive darkness to the images, a choice in line with the murky emotions clouding the air. The decision is artistically defensible, but it comes at the expense of leaving the already weary viewer feeling even gloomier. If it's possible to get seasonal affective disorder from a movie, this might be the one.

Ultimately, the matter of degree is what trips up Baumbach in MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. The problem is not that the characters are unlikable or totally unfamiliar. Indeed, their harshness and lack of generosity may be all too closely recognized, albeit in smaller doses. No, the trouble is that he has drawn caricatures incapable of self-editing and possessing shreds of decency that we would expect to find in non-sociopaths.

Grade: C+

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