November 15, 2007

Margot at the Wedding

Directed by Noah Baumbach Starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

With The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach completely refashioned himself as a quasi-Europhile auteur. Truffaut, Rohmer and Bergman are some of the names that critics have dropped while fawning over his recent films. With Margot at the Wedding, the late-achieving Baumbach makes it clear that he has no plans to revisit the Whit Stillman and Woody Allen homage he paid in the late 1990s anytime soon. Baumbach has also insisted in interviews that his much-admired Squid isn’t autobiographical as some in-the-know critics have interpreted it. It’s increasingly unclear whether the filmmaker’s newfound voice is indeed all his.

In Baumbach’s latest, Nicole Kidman plays Margot, a narcissistic author who found acclaim by airing her family’s dirty laundry but alienated her loved ones in the process. Her estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is about to marry the deadbeat Malcolm (Jack Black), and finally reaches out to Margot with an invitation. But Margot is less interested in patching things up than averting her own marital woes and thwarting Pauline’s wedding. The title really is a misnomer, since toward the end we’re not sure whether there will be a wedding, let along whether Margot will be present.

Margot attempts to give the well-worn tale of sibling rivalry the same kind of cathartic treatment Squid gave to the divorced parents, but with mixed results. Squid focused on how a marital separation affected the two children, and the viewers remained sympathetic with the boys even when they started acting out irrationally. In Margot, the emphasis is on the sisters’ embittered relationship and Margot’s overcompensation for her insecurities. Baumbach’s psychobabble is at times profound, but the film doesn’t articulate the kind of emotional toll that Margot has taken on everyone around her. Nearly everyone in the film is unlikable to varying degrees, leaving viewers no one to identify with. When Margot reaches an epiphany in the film, we’re not entirely sure whether she has arrived at a turning point or she is manipulatively playing for sympathy. Kidman deserves credit for fearlessly making a character so thoroughly unlikable.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.