Margot at the Wedding
Family beware: There's a writer in the room.
“When a writer is born into a family,” Philip Roth said, “that's the end of that family.” Margot, the titular character of Noah Baumbach's film Margot at the Wedding
, is a writer, but in 90 minutes she makes a convincing case that she could have wrecked her family even if she had never picked up a pen. Played to ruthless perfection by Nicole Kidman, Margot is icily acerbic at her best moments—and her best moments are often compromised by drink (white wine with one ice cube) or marijuana, either of which can inspire her to lash out with stinging criticisms thinly disguised as helpful honesty, or casual betrayals masquerading as intimate confidences. When someone tells a secret to Margot, that's the end of that secret.
Of course, some people would argue that sharing a confidence with Baumbach is no picnic either. Margot at the Wedding
makes a strong claim on being the best movie of the year, but it comes on the heels of Baumbach's 2005 film The Squid and the Whale
—an unsparing drama based on his parents' 1980s divorce—and again features New York literati mothers at their least becoming, laying Baumbach open to the charge of milking his familial crises for another story. “There should be a statute of limitations on how long you can blame your parents,” one of my colleagues muttered as he exited the Margot
screening. But this is a misreading of the movie, and a reductionistic one at that: This film is planted firmly in the present, and it's a criticism not of selfish Boomers but of the current generation's fresh ability to poison each other's lives. To suggest otherwise ignores Baumbach's ability to craft vivid, original characters.
And my, is Margot an original. Baumbach uses Kidman's chilly star power—that distance she's always projected toward the actors around her—to evoke Margot's attitude of entitled superiority. With her fey teenage son (Zane Pais) in tow, she deigns to appear at the Hamptons marriage of her mousy sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is betrothed to Malcolm, a depressive layabout (Jack Black, as a harmless lug who explains his mustache is for “ironic effect”). Margot takes one look around the grounds, declares, “I've always been truthful,” and begins tearing down everything in sight: Her sister's engagement, her own marriage and ultimately the pale blue wedding tent itself. (Cinematographer Harris Savides, who has shot many a movie for Gus Van Sant, foreshadows these emotional disasters with a bleak palette that hints at thunderclouds even on sunny days.)
When the tent settles, it signals an abortive end to the reunion—and simultaneously establishes Baumbach's status as the supreme cinematic chronicler of intellectual vanity. In four movies, from the fleet-footed comedies Kicking and Screaming
and Mr. Jealousy
to the darker studies of Squid
, he has assumed the reins from Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer as the filmmaker who most perceptively and amusingly observes the kind of narcissists who can diagnose flaws in everyone but themselves. (One of this movie's subtle ironies is how the emotionally stunted Margot likes to diagnose others with Asperger syndrome.) In an early scene, Malcolm works on writing his wedding vows, and makes one of those unwise confessions to Margot: “I haven't had that thing yet where you realize you're not the most important person in the world,” he says. “I'm anxious for it to happen.” The movie makes this knowledge seem a long way off for Malcolm—and light years away from Margot—but it proves that Baumbach has realized it completely. R. AARON MESH.
SEE IT: Margot at the Wedding
opens Wednesday, Nov. 21, at Fox Tower.
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