Monday, December 16, 2019

Margot at the Wedding

Director Noah Baumbach (right) with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black

Jennifer Jason Leigh

Noah Baumbach with Jennifer Jason Leigh

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING                               A-                   
USA  (92 mi)  2007  d:  Noah Baumbach

Another blistering critique of family dysfunction, while The Squid and the Whale (2005) featured a repugnant father (Jeff Daniels), this film features one of the more revolting mothers in Nicole Kidman’s neurotically smug Margot, an upscale New Yorker who perhaps best represents what years of therapy gone wrong can do.  Honest to the point of being compulsive, where she can’t help herself from making snide, overly critical remarks, she’s willing to destroy all those around her in the name of truth and honesty, used like a bulldozer to clear the landscape around her, where her primary purpose appears to be to deflect personal criticism away from herself, completely oblivious to the ramifications of her actions.  She’s brazenly horrible, where her overly grumpy nature around others, exacerbated by the everpresent glasses of wine, lead to despicable family betrayals which she reveals like open sores through her successful short stories.  Of primary interest, due to her literary acclaim, she is actually considered the breadwinner and the voice of reason and success in the family, even though she hasn’t spoken to her more free-spirited sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in years.  They are burying the hatchet, however, as Pauline announces she’s about to be married to the mildly artistic but perennially unemployed musician, Malcolm (Jack Black), who Margot immediately detests and undermines.  More friction and emotional chaos ensues.  Shot on 35 mm using older lenses and natural lighting in underlit darkened exteriors by Harris Savides, this is a savagely dark comedy with only brief traces of humor, which is instead dominated by a foul cruelty that expresses itself in strange ways, like the unwanted string of personal critiques coming from Margot towards her 12-year old son Claude’s (Zane Pais) entrance into puberty with the first emergence of body odor, the strange and cruel neighbors next door who want them to chop down an immense tree that borders their property, claiming the roots are rotting, poisoning their plants, and the disappearance of a well-liked family dog. 

The first collaboration of Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh after their marriage in 2005 (filing for divorce five years later), the film opens with Margot and Claude taking a train from New York to the Hamptons on Long Island, the exclusive territory of The Great Gatsby, which may as well be a journey back to her childhood, as Pauline inherited their mother’s summer home, an idyllic old house on the New England coast, so it brings back a flood of memories and stored up resentments which come to a head almost immediately, where Margot assumes her domineering role as the older sister, showing her true colors when she instantly reveals information told to her in confidence that Pauline is pregnant and intentionally hadn’t told anyone else, as she didn’t want people to believe that’s why she was marrying Malcolm.  Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) immediately becomes concerned wondering why her mother didn’t tell her, as well as Malcolm who’s somewhat ambivalent about becoming a father, believing this may be the stage in life where he’s not the most important person in the world anymore.  Margot is using the wedding as an excuse to visit an undisclosed lover, a smug popular novelist Dick (Ciaràn Hinds), whose summer home is nearby.  Baumbach is an exquisite writer of believable dialogue, like a screwball comedy writer of the 30’s, but more directly accurate, piercing through the most embarrassing situations.  When Margot is publicly enticed to climb a tree like she did as a precocious teenager, she manages to get to the top but is paralyzed, too frightened to get down, calling in the fire department as if it was an official emergency.  This story reflects a growing unease that people have with each another, revealing how people unhesitatingly poison the waters of the world around them, like opening the floodgates of the obnoxious behavior displayed on opinion-oriented talk radio, disparaging everyone around them while at the same time they somehow attempt to balance a sense of trust and personal honesty with their friends and family, and in this case an all but doomed impending marriage.  Somehow, the more they try to make it work, the worse it gets. 

While this film has a feeling of incompleteness with so much background information delayed or left out of the film completely, a bit like entering in midair and having to figure out how to fly, but what it does show in sharply defined characters is revealed in intimate detail, sparing nothing, in a scathing portrait of a maladjusted family behaving like they’ve always done, which is tear each other to shreds.  This is a no holds barred indictment of moral hypocrisy, people who use honesty as a weapon to hold others at bay, which gives them a phony sense of superiority.  What’s unique here is that such self-absorbed adults are behaving so wretchedly inappropriately in front of their own children.  Claude especially is a quietly sensitive kid, played with a beautiful sense of authenticity by Pais, but he’s subject to constant critiques from his mother even over the smallest things, where every detail of his life comes under neverending scrutiny, yet he’s attached to her and loves her, even if she doesn’t know how to love him back, telling him that when he was a baby, she wouldn’t allow anyone else to hold him, yet confesses privately “I think that was a mistake.”  Despite the horrid things Margot says and does, Pauline is basically a forgiving soul and her maternal instincts are more on the mark.  When the inevitable dust up with Margot reaches volatile proportions, the audience is surprised with how quickly Pauline’s anger subsides and her more easy going personality takes center stage.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is luminous in this role, yet her character has a surprising passivity, where her low key nature allows her sister (and others) to trample all over her again, yet she’s stunningly appealing displaying such an open vulnerability.  A unique and refreshingly daring work, always smart and articulate, all the performances feel pitch perfect in this small incendiary chamber drama, like an off-stage Broadway production made on a miniscule budget, offering a great deal more freedom of expression, more bang for your buck, where we may remain haunted afterwards by the wrenchingly expressed unpleasantness of these troubled souls.    

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