Director: Noah Baumbach
According to IMDb, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, his critically acclaimed sour valentine to coming of age amidst parental divorce in the 1980’s was originally titled Nicole at the Beach in an homage to French New Wave director Eric Rohmer. However, the name was immediately changed once Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman was cast and despite the Rohmer tribute, and unlike Squid, very little of Margot seems to be directly inspired by French filmmaking. Instead, the influences run deep and seem most indicative of absurdist literature by French writer Camus, with a nod to both Deliverance and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find thrown in for good measure. The use of such dark material is mostly vacant (save for a few pointed lines) from the trailer for Margot at the Wedding which sets itself up to be another dysfunctional family reunion film that’s all the rage in the independent film world with plenty of pathos and humor sprinkled throughout but it’s a far more disturbing work than one would think and justifiably baffled audience members expecting an entirely different film. Perhaps they were assuming it would be a "Nicole Kidman film" and not a Noah Baumbach film and I admit that, although I’ve seen all of his other movies, I too was expecting something entirely different until about halfway through when I realized that the darkness of Squid was just a prelude to this absurdist portrait of cruel, vicious behavior and the way it manifests in WASPs with backstabbing, emotional blackmail and infighting and in a shocking twist with the stereotypically “backwoods” neighbors who may indeed be sacrificing animals in their main room and have a son not above biting another kid in the ear a la Mike Tyson.
The film chronicles the relationship of short story author Margot (Kidman) whose history of using their dysfunctional upbringing and abundant daddy issues has alienated her sister Pauline (Baumbach’s wife Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two, despite a calculated long silence, have decided to try and mend the rift during a long weekend while they prepare for Pauline’s wedding. With her teenage son with burgeoning hormones Claude (Zane Pais) in tow, Margot arrives to realize that, much to her dismay, Pauline is marrying a man quite similar to as she puts it “the guys we used to reject when we were sixteen.” The intended in question is Malcolm (Jack Black) who is an unemployed “letter writer” that will spend days crafting his responses to newspaper music reviews and worries that he’s losing important pieces of his memory when he fails to instantly recall the name of a Motley Crue band member and isn’t above hurling a croquet mallet towards the sea in a fit of competitive anger when he senses things aren’t going his way. Black revels in the quirks and unlikable idiosyncrasies of his character and provides the perfect balance to Kidman’s wicked Margot who’s devious in ways that rival great literature as she passes judgment on all she comes across without paying even a fraction of the same time contemplating her own situation which consists of infidelity with a smug successful writer and the possibility of divorce from her husband. When husband John Turturro arrives later in the film for only a few brief scenes there was an audible sense of relief among viewers tired of watching the pathetic and angry characters cut each other down and eager to see a man whose integrity they admire in other films show up to sort of take a moral inventory with his innate goodness evidenced that stays with us long after he vanishes from the screen. While most of the ink being spilled by critics is analyzing the nuances of Kidman as the vindictive Margot, I was most taken by the complex portrayal of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Pauline who experiences two major life changes in the brief ninety-two minute film and manages to go through the entire emotional experience in ways both subtle and with complete conviction. She is the actress I’m hoping the Academy will remember come Oscar time and it’s refreshing to see her in such a difficult yet endearing role as only a few years ago, we may have expected to see her as Margot given the way she is typecast and Baumbach-- knowing his wife’s range-- gave her a terrific showcase. It’s only a shame that the film is so uneven and at times so wretchedly and aggressively unlikable that it’s hard to care about any of the people involved—yet, much like the literature of the writers whom he is channeling—despite their abundance of flaws, it’s impossible to look away.