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Noah Baumbach?s Margot at the Wedding: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Paramount Classics)


Friday, November 16, 2007

Margot at the Wedding

Directed by Noah Baumbach
(Paramount Classics)

Reviewed by Kristi Mitsuda

From his feature debut, Kicking and Screaming, up through the Squid and the Whale watershed, Noah Baumbach’s narrative frame of reference, whether concerned with romantic or familial attachments, has been explicitly male. The films, warm and insightful to varying degrees, could also evince an ungainliness, which perhaps stemmed from this lack of egalitarian regard from one so clearly humanistic. Having departed definitively from the more lopsided and self-consciously clever early comedies with The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach continues to progress by taking women as his main subject, for the first time. He may gesture towards Eric Rohmer with his choice of title and Woody Allen’s Bergmanesque Interiors via subject matter and setting, but Margot at the Wedding sees the further shaping of his distinctive voice.

As in the minutely observed anatomy of a divorce in The Squid and the Whale, the pleasures and pains of Margot reside in the smallness of scope and queasy focus on delicate family matters, captured with organic cinematography that makes lovely use of natural light and deliberate shadow. The film delights in the stripped-down detailing of a dysfunctional relationship between two sisters over the course of one weekend, in an unspecified East Coast locale at the former family home. But even to apply the label “dysfunctional” is to wrap the film in a word whose meaning has become frayed with overuse: Baumbach’s creation is far more realistically fucked-up than the embraceable eccentricity the term implies. When Margot, with young son Claude in tow, goes to make amends with her estranged sister on the latter’s wedding weekend (“I wasn’t speaking to her, but I’m over it.”), emotional chaos inevitably ensues. But minefields of potential clichés surrounding the imploding family dramedy are deftly avoided. In the case of both story and character, the generic becomes specific via dialogue as exacting and gorgeously revealing as that written for the stage.

Casting his two leads in roles consistent with their star personas — Nicole Kidman plays the coldly beautiful and uptight Margot to Jennifer Jason’s Leigh’s earthy, sexy, free-spirited Pauline — Baumbach elicits committed performances from the actors, and the archetypes get a psychological fleshing out. Kidman and Leigh have the inside language of sisters down, and a physical ease with one another evidenced as the two reminisce (strangely, giddily) about past abuses suffered. Pauline proclaims of their other sister, “Becky got it the worst,” to which Margot replies, “Raped by the horse trainer.” Beat. The pair breaks into incomprehensible laughter, and fall over one another as onlookers pass bemused, mystified glances. This unguarded moment is the single reminder of simpler days past, before their connection grew combative; but the reprieve doesn’t last long, and the relationship rapidly takes on tones fraught with the weight of historical differences and behavioral ruts.

The literal family tree in the backyard serves as symbol of this disintegration. The neighbors, on whose property it borders, want it chopped down — the roots are rotting and damaging their plants — but the sisters bond briefly over refrains of “we grew up with that tree,” unwilling to let go though it may be unhealthy. At one point, Pauline teasingly reminds Margot of her tree-climbing abilities of yore, to which the latter rejoins, “We don’t have much opportunity to climb trees in Manhattan.” With that single sentence, she reveals a self-congratulatory tartness (I live in Manhattan, therefore I am) exacerbated by the flippant laugh meant to lighten it. The next instant, rising to the challenge, she nimbly scales the metaphorical tree. For a few sublime moments, alone up at the top, she looks comfortable in her skin; and then she notices a bug on her hand and, then a gnat by her ear, which agitates her sufficiently to disturb the precarious equilibrium. (Cut to a fireman reaching out to assist her down.) Both sisters, but more often Margot, indulge in this brand of passive-aggressive taunting under the guise of familiarity or nostalgia. To Jack Black, who plays Pauline’s fiancé, Margot remarks with casual conspiracy, “Malcolm, have you noticed how sometimes Pauline can’t make eye contact?”

Although the age difference is not made explicit (the confusion compounded by Kidman’s increasingly plastic face), the dynamics suggest Margot, a successful short story writer, as the probable older sister, given the hardcore Type-A personality, and the way Pauline aspires to her approval. The latter’s need for validation arises especially in regards to Malcolm, whom Margot, behind the couple’s back, assesses: “He’s not ugly . . . just completely unattractive.” Pauline seeks to justify the relationship, even as she aligns herself with Margot’s sophistication against Malcolm’s vulgarity. As gamely embodied by Black, he sports the classic hallmarks of a loser – jobless, wallowing, overweight, and mustached (“It’s meant to be funny,” he needs to explain) – but Pauline genuinely cares for him. Only when viewing through the prism of Margot’s perspective does she find glaring flaws: When he asks Jim (Margot’s husband, played by an appealingly gentle John Turturro) if he’s ever tried peeing while sitting down, his would-be sister-in-law injects that she, small surprise, never sits but always squats on public toilets. A self-conscious glance up at Malcolm and low-voiced aside betray Pauline’s embarrassment at the question.

Many have expressed contempt for the characters, and by extension, the film itself. Most of this repugnance is reserved for Margot, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Her analytic intelligence borders on the pathological: turning her diagnostic gaze on Claude — in one instance, bringing him to tears with an appraisal that he used to be “rounder, more graceful” — she comes across nearly bloodless. But the dismissive critical disdain wrong-headedly circles around the facile question of the character’s likeability, or lack thereof. Baumbach presents incisive portraits, not flattering ones, and he refuses to sanitize the unpleasant ways in which people allow their harshest qualities to hang out in the open with family. But his compassion comes through via careful shadings of character: Alluding to Margot’s domestic traumas, including a decaying marriage and her son’s burgeoning adolescence, he makes understandable how such a person might use her cerebral tendencies and competitive streak as armor, a way to maintain distance and mastery over emotional turmoil. Similarly, the pretentious father and son of The Squid and the Whale remain empathetic by dint of the aching recognition their respective posturing triggers. Yet where Bernard and Walt are applauded as fully formed characterizations, Margot and Pauline meet with vituperative scorn. Could it be that female characters need to make nice to garner sympathy? At base, Baumbach wants to wring humanity out, lovingly hang it on the line to dry, and with the caustic, beautiful Margot at the Wedding, he does just that.


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