Noah Baumbach is one relentlessly bleak filmmaker, and that’s not a compliment. It’s not that his films are necessarily evil, or even completely off-target; rather, one of the things that makes Baumbach so slippery is his habit of stumbling onto moments of slight emotional truth in the middle of a film completely devoid of it. Baumbach’s debut, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, was funnier, wittier, and often sharper than anything a beginning filmmaker could hope to achieve, and it’s clear now that his early period will forever dwarf the muted stories and bitter characterizations of his later works. Something terrible must have happened to Baumbach in his unemployed interim between 1997’s Mr. Jealousy and 2004’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which Baumbach co-wrote with director Wes Anderson. It’s no accident that The Life Aquatic was Anderson’s first film to have a thoroughly unlikable protagonist whose supposed moment of existential revelation wasn’t at all honest or earned or even worth the hellish slog the audience made to get there. Anderson’s increasing quirkiness may divide viewers, but at least he’s capable of tapping into something inside himself to craft moments of genuine heartache. Baumbach’s recent films show no such ability to identify with real characters, nor a willingness to do anything other than throw a bunch of hateful people into a room and shake them up just to watch their lives unravel. His characters are real to the degree they allow Baumbach to act out again (and again and again) the kind of pseudo-literary turbulence to which he aspires; the people he gives life on screen are recognizably human but completely monstrous. His The Squid and the Whale mixed the genuine emotional angst brought on by a teen watching his parents divorce and suffering through the attendant identity crisis, and it was almost weighed down by Baumbach’s twin obsessions (sex and non sequiturs). But Margot at the Wedding is even duller. It commits a host of sins, chief among them the conflation of argument and honesty with Baumbach’s increasingly annoying habit of letting his characters speak in elliptical bursts of nonsensical pop psychobabble. Margot at the Wedding is efficiently made and technically sound, but it’s so downright unlikable that no joy can be derived from viewing it except for the visual cues in the final scene that the film is about to mercifully shuffle off into the void. Margot at the Wedding is one raw pile of vitriol and doubt and pain, anchored by a protagonist neither worthy of redemption nor at any great pains to seek it.
The film begins with a quick title screen with text the watery green of a poisoned ocean, as if warning of the nauseating ride ahead. Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), are making their way via train to the New England coast for the wedding of Margot’s sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Margot is an outspoken control freak on the verge of divorcing her husband presumably because a two-way relationship is beyond her ability to manage. Claude adores her and desires her respect and attention, and it’s clear that Margot has become dependent on Claude’s needs as a way to both validate her as a person and to provide her with the kind of perfect mastery over another human that makes her tick. Claude, for instance, is beginning to grow a scraggly preteen mustache, but Margot makes him dye it blonde; the onset of puberty has caused him to smell, but Margot refuses to buy him deodorant because she claims it causes cancer. Her deep need to keep Claude imprisoned in an eternal childhood where he forever needs his mother’s love and advice is painful, and more than a little heartbreaking, but Baumbach never builds an ounce of compassion in the viewer for Margot. She is more than just unlikable; she is intolerable. She is consistently aloof, and her expressions of love for Claude are buried in the kind of manipulative, passive-aggressive barbs that are meant to hurt him for simply wanting to be close to her. When she tells him at one point, “I can see how much you’ve changed,” she doesn’t mean it as a compliment on his burgeoning manhood but as an attack on his willingness to change without her permission.
Margot and Claude arrive at Pauline’s, the house where the girls grew up, and the family dynamic only becomes more strained and unbelievable as the week progresses. Pauline’s fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), is the sort of unemployed lout Margot feared he would be, and she immediately begins to undermine his and Pauline’s relationship. “He’s the kind of guy we rejected when we were 16,” Margot tells her sister, again signaling her desire to both control the fate of everyone around her and to return to what (to her mind) was an easier time. Pauline is a model of restraint and maturity during the week, doing her best to tolerate her sister; they love each other with the kind of resigned boredom that can only come with the harsh realization that no amount of hatred will break the chains of family, and as such, Pauline and Margot are pushed to the limit just trying to survive in each other’s presence. Is there a degree of truth to this? It’s possible; Baumbach subscribes to the school of storytelling that collecting your worst memories and then pushing them to an extreme counts as something deep and truthful, and it’s certainly nothing new to realize that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But it’s important to understand just what Baumbach is doing here: He’s not just putting people into painful situations, but he is making those people impossible to care about.
I’m throwing around the word “likeability” and its forms an awful lot, and I should probably here point out that I don’t necessarily mean the kind of warm fuzzies you feel when, say, the dashing hero comes to the rescue of the magical girl from the stars. No, in broader terms, you have to be able to connect with the story and its players on any number of non-negative gut levels, from love to like to curiosity or any of the hundred others. There needs to be something compelling about the character, and doubly so if the writer-director is going to do his damnedest to make you hate them the way Baumbach seems to take a perverse delight in trussing up Margot for the viewers’ horrific judgment. The best stories are inevitably the ones about pain, and love, and a loss of some great imagined innocence, but the reasons those stories work so well is that their authors created characters with hearts and souls, characters with whom the viewer or reader could identify in some way and thus commit to following for the length of a film or a novel. Hell, even Michael Corleone had a spark of humanity to begin with (not to mention the benefit of an actual character arc, as opposed to Baumbach’s haphazard, plotless story lines). But there is no one in Margot at the Wedding worth caring about; the most likable characters are simply the least detestable.
Like The Squid and the Whale, the duration of Margot at the Wedding unfolds in a series of choppy scenes sandwiched together to form something resembling a plot that’s actually nothing more than a series of pitiful vignettes strung together by the presence of the same characters. Claude does some low-level flirting with his cousin and the babysitter (Halley Feiffer), while Margot drinks a lot of wine and does her damnedest to break up the wedding before it happens. The conversations come out of nowhere and lead the same place, and Baumbach is still fascinated by frustrated sexuality at all ages: Margot masturbates to no avail on her first night in the house, presumably because this seemed like an emotionally complex scene to put in a screenplay. There’s also the twofer Baumbach scores later in the film with a random conversation about self-abuse: While standing at the bus station, Claude abruptly says to Margot, “I masturbated last night. When everyone was asleep, I went into the bathroom and did it.” Margot waits a moment before blandly replying, “You don’t need to tell me things like that, sweetie.” It’s unclear if this is supposed to be Claude’s last-ditch attempt to grab his mother’s attention, but it still plays like something Baumbach figured would sound smart and quirky and “honest” but that in execution falls flat. It’s not funny, or even revealing; it’s just boring.
Cinematographer Harris Savides, whose use of light and shadow was so wonderful in Zodiac, uses mostly natural light to shoot the scenes, giving them a muddy, unfocused feeling that uncomfortably mirrors the emotional funhouse the characters are wandering through. The blacks aren’t black but murky, noisy grays, and I found myself unconsciously squinting at the screen to try and make out some of the images. In the middle of all this torturous but ultimately pointless bickering, only Malcolm, not an official member of the family, stands out as someone remotely warm. He senses something is deeply wrong with Margot but lacks the ability to explain it to Pauline; the closest he comes is when he says to Pauline while they’re fighting, “The problem is not out there, it’s sleeping in my studio. … It’s Margot.” Black is more toned-down here than ever before, but he’s still somehow sweet and easygoing, and if any of the characters show moments or hints of relatability, it’s Malcolm. Compared with the rest of Baumbach’s solipsistic and self-destructive little tribe, he’s a god.
The ultimate failure of Margot at the Wedding is not its repulsive characters or the way it dares the viewer to find someone worth rallying for, but the fact that Baumbach is capable of so much more. Baumbach is far from untalented, and he’s demonstrated in the past that he’s capable of marrying both sharp insights about human behavior with characters who engage the viewer and earn their trust, sympathy, or respect. And that’s a necessary thing to do. Without that vital and overlooked step, Margot at the Wedding will never be a film worth watching or remembering.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.The Suppurating Asshole of Mutual Acrimony and Defeat
Film | November 26, 2007 | Comments ()