April 24, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: Margot at the Wedding

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Margot at the Wedding (2007)
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

As I've mentioned here several times in the past, I'm a big slobbering fanboy of writer/director Noah Baumbach; to cite just one example, of the 75 or so movie reviews I wrote for CCLaP last year, almost none of them contained as much praise as the one for Baumbach's 2005 The Squid and the Whale, a semi-autobiographical film regarding the messy divorce between his intellectual parents in 1980s New York. And the reason I love Baumbach's projects so much is because he's so good at finding that subtle line in character-driven work, that line between being uncomfortably incisive and painfully on-the-nose; you know what I mean, that line between saying to someone at a party, "That's a fascinating way to look at the situation" and "God, will you please just stop talking?" In fact, this is the main complaint made about Baumbach's work as well, that for many people his scripts step right over that nearly invisible line; there's no denying that many of Baumbach's characters over the years have been cruel, coldly intelligent, even bordering on sociopathic, and how you feel about the movies he creates around such characters depends a lot on how you feel about such people in real life.

Margot at the Wedding

Take his latest, for example, 2007's Margot at the Wedding, one of the most successful and fascinating character-driven dramas I've ever seen but that is definitely guilty of all the things mentioned above, inspiring so many people when the subject is brought up to say something along the lines of, "Ugh, I don't even like thinking about that movie. Sheesh, don't even say the name of that movie around me." Because let's just be as honest as we can: the title character of this film, played by Nicole Kidman in one of the best performances of her career, is truly a horrible little monster and a genuinely unpleasant human being, with a big part of this movie experience involving the fact that you're repulsed by her, even as you're fascinated by what makes her tick and oddly sympathetic to the relentlessness of her self-abuse. Because this is really what makes Baumbach such a great storyteller, when all is said and done, versus one of those simply dour and unpleasant indie writers who are always delving into the sicknesses and weaknesses of the world; that because of his superior writing skills, because of his natural ability to understand the human condition, Baumbach always has a way of making such characters oddly sympathetic by the end, no matter how horrible of a human being they are most of the time and how nastily they're treating all the people around them.

Margot at the Wedding

A successful yet deeply neurotic and judgmental author in the New York area, Margot is one of those people who is more tolerated by her family and friends than actually liked; it's the source of most of the conflicts in the movie itself, in that she is in town to attend the wedding of her slightly frazzled and much more down-to-earth sister Pauline (played here by Baumbach's real-life wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh). And let's face it, a lot of us can deeply understand such a situation inside our very bones; you know, that situation of "psyching yourself up" for a coming holiday or family event, of getting yourself emotionally prepared for the psychological assault which is a manipulative sibling or cousin or parent. Because whew, is Margot certainly that -- manipulative and psychologically violent, that is -- one of those authors who is as popular as she is because she can stare so easily into the souls of others, and so dispassionately point out all the black bits she finds, something great for a novel but certainly unnerving when that stare is directed at you.

Margot at the Wedding

The movie itself, then, is a relatively action-free look at the days Margot and her preteen son are actually in town for the wedding, and of all the ways the characters interact with each other based on their pasts and current relationships, not to mention the way that absent characters also profoundly shape the relationships between the people who actually are there. (For a good example of this, just watch the ongoing way that the two sisters use their unseen third sibling as a pawn in their various arguments against each other.) But to be fair, I guess I shouldn't call this an "action-free" movie, because that of course is the other great thing about Baumbach as a filmmaker; that although his projects firmly fall into that slow-moving camp that most character-based dramas do, there are certainly enough interesting and quirky plot-based events happening to not make you be all, "Will something please happen now, you sad little pretentious art-school freaks?" For example, it was simply brilliant for Baumbach to cast Jack Black in the role of Leigh's fiance; despite this being a much-more toned-down part than this man-child comedic actor usually takes on, his natural manic nature still comes oozing through during the cracks in the story, during the moments that usually make one stifle a yawn when watching most low-budget character-driven indie dramas. If it wasn't for that, if it wasn't for the small exciting things that actually do happen in Baumbach's films, they wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable as they are, or nearly as different and better than the usual cardigan-wearing navel-gazing indie-emo-festival dreck that his work so often gets compared to.

Margot at the Wedding

As I seem to often say here, Margot at the Wedding is not for everyone; if you enjoy tightly-focused character dramas, however, and especially ones where gifted but difficult artists are psychoanalyzed through deceptively clever dialogue and set pieces, this is definitely a film you will not want to miss. In fact, given that this is my fourth movie of his that I've now seen and loved, I can safely say that the above applies to almost all the films of Baumbach's career, and Baumbach himself a great guy to become a serial fan of.

Out of 10:
Writing: 10
Acting: 10
Directing: 9.7
Cinematography: 7.0
Overall: 9.2

Random notes:
--The three principles in this movie (Kidman, Leigh and Black) actually moved in together during filming, specifically so that they'd get on each other's nerves more just like a real family does.

--And by the way, the film was originally named Nicole at the Beach as a sly homage to filmmaker Eric Rohmer; the title was changed after Nicole Kidman was unexpectedly cast in the main part.

Best viewed: Well, not with your f-cking family over Thanksgiving, that's for damn sure.

Next on my queue list: Ooh, I've got all kinds of movies from 2007's Oscar season now watched and with reviews ready to go, including Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead and Lars and the Real Girl. Plus Cloverfield! All right!

Read even more about Margot at the Wedding: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:26 PM, April 24, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |