Something new

Somewhere in the midst of my books and papers is a scrap of paper with the barely legible words “Kicking & Screaming” written on it: a note scrawled to myself in the darkness of a theater after watching a trailer for director Noah Baumbach’s first film and deciding it was worth seeing. That note is now a treasured relic of a moment when I felt that the images flickering on the screen were coming out of my own head. I could not have guessed that the quirky little film would be so precise in capturing the spirit of my post-undergraduate angst, spawning more catchphrases and character archetypes in my group of friends than any combination of action movies and television shows. Nor did I imagine that I would follow each subsequent
Baumbach film with the same degree of enthrallment that accompanied the first one. But something obviously struck a nerve then, and as Baumbach has matured as a director, his films have become more textured, if also more difficult. He may not be telling my story anymore, but he’s still spinning good stories about fascinating characters.

Margot at the Wedding is Baumbach’s most mature work to date. It’s also the first one that really concentrates on female characters: the titular Margot (Nicole Kidman), a successful writer, who is coming to the titular wedding of her estranged sibling Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to unemployed musician-artist Malcolm (Jack Black). Pauline and Malcolm live in the sisters’ childhood home with Pauline’s daughter, Ingrid. Margot has brought along her androgynous son Claude (Zane Pais), but not her husband, Jim (John Turturro), or her other child. It turns out Margot is having an on-again, off-again affair with the improbably named Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds), whose Lolita-ish daughter, Maisy, babysits Ingrid for Pauline. Meanwhile, the menacing hillbilly neighbors, the Voglers, demand the destruction of an old tree in the yard that seems to be one of the few things the family can rally around.

Hilarity does not ensue, because as much as the situation here lends itself to bad comedy or worse melodrama, Baumbach pursues neither in favor of drawing complete characterizations and showing them in uninflected circumstances. The result is neither Wes Anderson nor Tolstoy, but something like a newly discovered Chekhov play. The characters aren’t played for laughs (even Jack Black ends up achieving more pathos than chuckles) and there are no heroes, just a bunch of people who are each cruel in their own unique way. Margot is the most vicious, but that seems to be a function of how articulate and mannered she is. Every word that exits her lips seems calculated for maximum damage and her very presence is disruptive to whatever balance exists in a room.

Kidman shines in the iciness of the role, but her real talent is in exposing the cracks in Margot’s façade. In the end, she is as fragile as her more obviously unnerved sister. Conversely, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Pauline is so clearly damaged that it takes us longer to realize that she possesses more resilience than we first imagined. It may be uncomfortable to watch these two characters ripping each other apart in stages, but it’s some of the best acting you’ll ever see on screen. (And that goes for the rest of the cast, as well.)

Margot may be a monster, but she is in good company. Every character here has a knife and they seem so enchanted with their sharp and shiny objects that they just have to try them out. Baumbach reminds us that in the real world it’s the people closest to us who can hurt us the most. If they don’t, it’s not because they can’t, but because they won’t. Here, they do and it’s painful yet mesmerizing to watch. Even the minor characters are vicious. Maisy crushes the insecure Claude by viciously informing him that he has unbearable B.O. Claude takes potshots at his mother. Dick sandbags Margot at the most uncomfortable bookstore event of all time, and spends so much time talking about Margot’s husband that we can only begin to suspect that boffing Margot is merely his way of having a relationship with Jim. You can’t even have a pleasant game of croquet with these people, much less a wedding. I suspect even the family dog, Wizard, would have some cutting remarks to make if he could speak.

There’s no denying that this can be a difficult film to watch. (It is a beautiful film, with the occasional splash of color and the characters contrasting with the dominant gray tones.) While you might justly wish for a less messy story where you could have just one character to like without reservation, I wonder if we can’t be allowed just one film every so often that isn’t an escapist fantasy and which recognizes that people are complicated.

If Noah Baumbach was an indie-rock band, right about now he would be abandoned by his first fans who miss the free-wheeling early albums, while picking up a new class of snorky art-rock snobs who admire the controlled sound of his latest pieces but who will drop him in a couple of years and subtly sneer the way Margot does when Pauline mentions that she now listens to R.E.M. Early Baumbach fans can feel vindicated by the Criterion Collection’s edition of Kicking and Screaming — proof positive that he did in fact make great films before The Squid and the Whale. Margot at the Wedding is a good sign that he will continue to surprise us with great films in the future — and that we should scrawl reminders to ourselves to see them. •

Margot at the Wedding
Dir. & writ. Noah Baumbach; feat. Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, John Turturro (R)

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