If you were to judge a film by its title, you would probably think that Margot at the Wedding is a simplistic, superficial film with nothing original to offer. Yet you couldn’t be farther from the truth and nay-sayers to the film are not seeing the whole gamut. That is mainly because Margot at the Wedding was written and directed by Noah Baumbach; a trenchant follow up to 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. You would be surprised to learn that the film is about complex characters in a complicated situation. Margot at the Wedding is a low-key, haunting, unsettling family character study that is, with the exception of a couple of scenes that could be excised without detriment, extremely well written. It exceeds all expectations and for Baumbach, it’s really one of the more impressive original screenplays of 2007.
The film is filled with characters that we resent and are not able empathize with, but where Baumbach succeeds so well is making the viewer still pity and care about them. Margot (Nicole Kidman), a contentious, mercurial woman who arrogantly points out the flaws of others, travels with her son, Claude (Zane Pais), a young teen with girlish hair who has a notable dependency on his mother, to her betrothed sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 2005’s The Jacket) house (also the house Margot grew up in) to stay with her family for a few days until the wedding. Pauline is set to marry Malcolm (Jack Black), who can be best described by Margot as “guys we rejected when we were sixteen.” Needless to say that Margot doesn’t like Malcolm one little bit and Malcolm feels the same way about her. Malcolm and Pauline’s relationship is hoping to survive the weekend as Margot’s personality creates a wall between them.
This may not sound like much, but you’d be to surprised to see how layered this story is and how rich the characters are. Baumbach utilizes the flaws of his characters to advance his story. All of them are far from perfect, and all of them are “insufferable”. Each get the detail they deserve, but it’s Kidman’s Margot who is in the spotlight. She can’t come to terms with her own miserableness so she makes everyone around her miserable, even her own son, whom she loves deeply. There’s a great, epitomizing scene where Margot, a published writer, is discussing her works at a local bookstore and Dick, a man whom she is having an affair with, asks if one of her characters reflects her own parenting ability. The question slaps her in the face and she is left speechless. The question may have been thrown at her as a malicious act, but nonetheless it is truthful.
Baumbach goes even deeper than the characters themselves and fuels the picture with explorations into the relationships between a couple the day(s) before their wedding, the resentment and unconditional love between siblings, and that unbreakable bond between mother and son. Margot says to Claude “It’s okay, I wouldn’t want to be around me either” but later Claude says that he enjoys being around his mother. Furthermore, Baumbach might be one of the finest writers of dialogue working today. The dialogue here is fresh, original, and intelligent.
The tone Baumbach achieves is just about perfect. The scenes are either set in the gloomy indoors, or the cloudy outdoors. Despite what you may have heard and the flashes of humor, I wouldn’t classify Margot at the Wedding as a comedy. There’s hardly anything in the film that’s cheerful or colorful. Combine those qualities with the unlikable characters and you may wonder why I liked the film so much. Well the answer is simple: this isn’t Dan in Real Life. This is Margot in real life. I consistently felt that these were real people who are flawed in their own unique ways and who struggle to tolerate one another. The film goes in unexpected directions, and the ending is loose and realistic. It’s amazing how Baumbach manages to do all of this in just 92 minutes.
As the titular Margot, Nicole Kidman is remarkable and turns in one of her very best performances. Margot has a vast range of personalities, moods, and emotions, and Kidman handles them all with assured, palpable acting. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also very good as Pauline, who wanted to reestablish good relations with her sister but ends up hating her more than ever. Newcomer Zane Pais is impressive and gets a surprising amount of screen time as Claude. If there is one chink in the casting chain, it is Jack Black as Malcolm. Black is actually pretty solid in the beginning and middle, but it’s at the end where he tries to let loose his emotions that his casting becomes questionable. On the bright side, he does deliver the film’s only hilarious joke (welcome comedic relief) about his theory of why women are such bad drivers.
Margot at the Wedding is not for everyone. Hopefully this review will serve as a caveat for viewers looking for a Dan in Real Life type of comedy. However, those willing to play along will be much rewarded. Baumbach does so much with so little. Nearly everything seems to fall in place effortlessly. The ending will be debated as the film appeared to have more to say, but I think Baumbach is treating his audience with respect as he leaves us to contemplate over what would happen if the film were fifteen minutes longer. Margot at the Wedding may be light on plot but it is a truthful character study, and because of this, the film is irresistibly winning.