Margot at the Wedding ★★½

Over the past year I’ve been trying to catch up on various “best of” movie lists. One of the titles that pops up quite often is Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? After about 90 minutes of this over-blown, freak fest, I fast forwarded through the remaining 45 minutes of cold hearted bitterness. I just couldn’t take it anymore. As an optimistic and fairly nice person, the way these people behave and speak to one another was just intolerable. So here I am, 40 years after Nichols’ film sitting down to watch Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. What do I find? An additional 84 minutes of people being cruel and cold hearted to people they supposedly love.

The story goes that Margot, with her (13 year old?) son Claude, are visiting Margot’s sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) just in time for Pauline’s nuptuals with Malcolm (Jack Black). Since Margot and Pauline haven’t spoken to each other in years, Margot is really there to see a lover while at one of her own book signings over the weekend that happens to be taking place in the same town. Meanwhile, her son Claude finds companionship with Pauline’s daughter and another girl – I never did figure out all the familial relationships. On top of this you’ve got ornery, slightly Deliverance-esque neighbors nagging and fighting with Pauline and generally making things difficult.

The story line however, is really beside the point. Baumbach’s films, up to now, have really focussed on the strength of the characters to keep the audience’ attention. With 2005′s, fantastic The Squid and the Whale, this was pulled off brilliantly in a believable, yet uncomfortable way, with the likes of Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney and a nice set of supporting characters. Here, it’s up to Kidman, Leigh and Black to make this happen. Unfortunately, they do not.

In The Squid, the characters bickered and argued in a believable way. Brothers will be brothers and a couple going through a divorce are likely to encounter some tough and awkward moments where things are said in the heat of the moment that they don’t really mean. I mean at least the mother and father loved their children. Margot, on the other hand, has a bunch of really heartless characters that just say whatever comes into their head with no regard for consequences or feelings. Seriously, who tells their 13 year old kid that he’s stupid and doesn’t look good or that he smells (15 minutes after telling him that he shouldn’t wear deoderant because it’s “bad” for you)? It’s no wonder these people don’t speak to each other for years on end and have some serious medication addicitons. You could even see the inevitable dysfunction coming for the poor kids in their immediate future. These’re truly dispicable people and had I been around them for more than the 84 minutes I was already subjected to, I might’ve been forced to either pull my hair out or slit my wrists (or simply walk out of the theater).

The bright spot in the film does land with the performances however. Here we see Kidman the actress as opposed to Kidman the movie star. When she sets her mind to something and dives in head first on a project, she can really shine. Here, although insufferable (since that’s what the character calls for), she pulls it off remarkably well and at least captured my attention with her abilities.

Jack Black is obviously here for comedic relief. Though it’s been tightened up a bit and is more reserved, he sticks out like a sore thumb; inserting comedy where it’s not necessary and doesn’t really work. Luckily, his counter-part, Jennifer Jason Leigh carries her weight around pretty well and was apparently nominated for an independent spirit award. Kudos there.

I gotta say, the film has great atmosphere, and as I noted, some nice performances. The story however is completely inconsequential in lieu of watching a bunch of people bicker and call one another names or insult their intelligence. The trailer makes it look like this is slightly light-hearted fun (climbing trees, making jokes, funny stories of the best). This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, it’s two-faced, callous and cold. The drudging up of old family history with no intent other than to inflict pain on one another just becomes not only tiresome, but loathesome as well. And to those that have seen the film, who is this Becky character they keep referring to? At one point, after making her sister cry with some callous phrasing, she asks of her sister, “You know I’m an honest person and I say what I think. Would you rather I lie?” Yes! should’ve been her response. It’s not lying, it’s common courtesy. I’d rather this film had lied to me. Ironically, it would’ve been more truthful, entertaining and believable had it done so.