Margot at the Wedding (review)

Tree of Life

If you think Nicole Kidman is icy and aloof as lady villain Mrs. Coulter in the alterna-world fantasy The Golden Compass, wait till you see her in Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach’s noiselessly explosive domestic drama, which couldn’t be more stranded in the bitter real world. Kidman’s Margot is selfish, vain, indifferent, uninvolved as a mother, and seemingly determined, in an unthinking, inattentive way, to sabotage everything and everyone around her. It’s almost as if her casual destructiveness were an accidental byproduct of her own self-involvement — like, How can she help it? Is it her fault if your life and your happiness are less important than her own?
Thing is, Margot ain’t happy: or perhaps she’s only happy, and then only briefly, when she’s spreading her misery around, like a particularly virulent contagion. Margot’s carelessness is Kidman’s genius here: the actress makes no attempt to ingratiate herself with us, which ends up making Margot thoroughly unlikeable but totally fascinating, in a rubbernecking-a-car-crash-on-the-highway kind of way. Margot couldn’t care less what we think, and I suspect that Kidman might feel much the same way: she stalks through the cinematic space here in a way that suggests that she is utterly unconcerned with the usual niceties of an actor looking to connect with the audience. But she connects with Margot the character in a way that makes her so completely real that we can’t look away.

Writer-director Baumbach’s (he wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with Wes Anderson) almost plotless plot feels like the meanderings of real life, too, like an expression of the dictum about life being all the other stuff that happens when you attempt to make plans. The wedding of the title is that of Margot’s sister, Pauline, though Margot arrives in their unnamed New England seaside home town, where Pauline still lives in the family house, as if she’s set her mind to stop the nuptials from ever happening. She hasn’t seen Pauline in years, and she’s never met Pauline’s fiancé, Malcolm, but never mind. Could be it’s the coming apart of Margot’s own marriage that has infected her: Margot arrives sans husband but with her hazy blur of a teenage son, Claude (Zane Pais), and what’s this? Her “lover” (love hardly seems to enter into it) and professional colleague Dick (Ciarán Hinds: The Nativity Story, Miami Vice) lives right down the road from Pauline… Or it could be that Margot’s just a bitch, for she prowls through the family catching-up and preparations for the backyard wedding jabbing her claws into every crevice of weakness she spies.

We’re never quite sure what the rift was between the sisters that estranged them — perhaps the two women are too dissimilar to really have much to do with each other: Pauline is, seemingly, as freespirited and as relaxed as Margot is tightly wound and fiercely in control (or so she thinks). Jennifer Jason Leigh’s (The Jacket, The Machinist) peculiar brand of actorly snippiness works perfectly here — her Pauline seems the unavoidable reaction to her sister, chipperness crashing against barely masked hostility and finding no purchase there. And next to her Pauline, Jack Black (Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny, Nacho Libre), in a surprisingly effective seriocomic role, makes Malcolm a manic smudge of excess personality, an artist who hasn’t yet found his art. Scratch their surfaces, and neither of them are any more pleasant than Margot, so perhaps part of the malicious pleasure to be found here is in how effective Margot’s provocations become.

Over the course of the wedding weeking, long-held secrets will be unraveled and new ones uncovered, and family history will come quietly out to taint the present. Seemingly random subplots concerning nasty neighbors and confused children will go unresolved. But they are all branches on a tree… like the crooked old thing in the yard that those next-door neighbors demand be cut down — its roots are intruding on their property, they claim, as if it weren’t the nature of trees to have an influence far more widespread than its apparent size. Through the movie looms Malcolm’s chore, chainsaw at the ready, to at least trim it down to a manageable and less dangerous size. And we know that that chore cannot possible end well, as neither can any attempt to get under control the branches of family, no matter how gnarly, or the tendrils of messy life.

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