Overlooked Movie Monday: Margot at the Wedding

by Phil Fava on September 6, 2010

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

“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.”

kidman margot at the wedding 2007Can 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.

jack black jennifer jason leigh margot at the wedding 2007Instead 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.

kidman jason leigh margot at the wedding 2007Baumbach’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.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Vincent Scarpa September 6, 2010 at 9:06 pm

“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.”

Couldn’t agree more, my friend.

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2 Josh June 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Completely agree. Sadly, people would rather claim to relate to someone like Bridget Jones or some character that takes place the heightened reality that we see often in films. People want to relate to flaws like “too nice” or “lacks confidence”.

Having seen this film multiple times I find it fascinating how many (sometimes relatable) ugly, yet real, parts of human nature Baumbach manages to expose.

It’s not a film to recommend to people whose taste you’re not sure of and it’s definitely not a film for everyone (not saying it in an elitist way, I just genuinely think that not everyone will enjoy it).

I thoroughly enjoyed it though.

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3 Eric Melin June 14, 2012 at 8:53 am

Josh- Your comment about “People want to relate to flaws like “too nice” or “lacks confidence”” is really astute. We want to root for people, so long as they aren’t “above” us, or so long as they are flawed and charming. What about all the flawed and off-putting?

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4 James September 6, 2010 at 10:36 pm

My least favorite from Baumbach, but that being said I liked this film. Didn’t love it and some of the criticisms towards this film are valid, but I’ve seen films with more irritating characters than this and Kidman hasn’t been this good in awhile and I always enjoy Jennifer Jason Leigh.

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5 Eric Melin September 6, 2010 at 11:35 pm

I liked this a little better than “Greenburg,” which also reveals some hard-to-admit truths. I think Baumbach consistently writes what he knows and that’s a good thing for him–especially when he knows people as amazingly flawed ans these people and he can realize their complexities so fully.

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