“I don’t subscribe to the credo that there’s enough room for everyone to be successful. I think there are only a few spots available, and people like Dick Koosman and Bono are taking them up.”
Can a film whose central characters are uniformly unlikable be dramatically compelling in their midst? Eric thought so in his original 2007 review.
“Margot at the Wedding,” Noah Baumbach‘s caustic follow up to his 2005 foray into the dynamics of divorce, “The Squid and the Whale,” raises that question right at its onset and persists in not chocking up an easy answer to it. It tells the story of Margot—a self-centered, passive-aggressive egotist played to perfection by Nicole Kidman—and her son, Claude, as they attend her sister’s wedding in the Hamptons and stay the weekend at their childhood home.
The aesthetic brings to mind Bergman’s delicate, icy approach to familial acrimony and the handheld neo-realism of many a contemporary drama. The palate is one of desaturated grays and browns and blues and pinks, and it is the best visual rendering of a gloomy weekend culminating in marriage I can recall. Everything about it feels melancholy, and it’s a fully appropriate format for the film’s array of misanthropes to congregate and collectively ruin.
Instead of the lot feigning normalcy or putting on airs and then finally breaking down into hysterics, Baumbach has it so that the moment everyone is situated in a close proximity to one another, they immediately reignite (or otherwise develop entirely) their dysfunction in lots of colorfully passive-aggressive and immature ways. The film is an exercise in dashed expectations—in every scene where enjoying one another’s company enters the realm of possibility, it’s almost always sidelined by one or more person’s awkwardness or hostility.
Naturally, Margot disapproves of her sister Pauline’s fiancée, Malcolm, and spends her time smoldering with contempt as a result. Their tacit rivalry is an example of the time-tested archetype of the judgmental sophist and the stooge. And who better to play that stooge than Jack Black?
As Pauline, Margot’s sister, Jennifer Jason Leigh maintains a certain equanimity throughout the performance and really only expresses angst backhandedly and under the radar. They’re all doing some of their best work. Throw in heartfelt and effective performances from the younger half of the cast and John Turturro (one of the most delightful surprises in movies, period) as Margot’s (soon-to-be-estranged?) husband, and the end result is a rich and satisfying, if somewhat bleak, character drama.
Baumbach’s strengths undoubtedly have their roots in his literary background (see “Squid” if this contention seems murky). His dialogue is incisive and droll and usually plays to one or more psychological defects the character spewing it is harboring; his characterizations are honest and unsentimental. There’s a certain grace and beauty to everyone’s emotional ugliness.
And that brings us back to the key question raised by a film of this disposition: Why should unlikeable characters preclude an emotional point of entry for the viewer? If they’re painted as pitiable and insecure and their delinquency isn’t celebrated, sympathy—or at least some version of understanding—shouldn’t be too strenuous to muster.
Cinema has beckoned greater sympathies for villains far more despicable than the insecure narcissists who populate “Margot at the Wedding.” These are people who navigate their interpersonal experiences like wounded puppies and exist in a mode of self-defense; they’re not serial killers. When people reject movies with unsavory characters at face value, I think it’s more or less an admission that they hit too close to home.