Margot at the Wedding (Paramount Vantage, R)

film_margot_sm.jpgNot that Margot is especially bad, but it feels like a pale imitation of the director’s previous work.







Somewhere around the time that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou came out, I became a big fan of Noah Baumbach’s. Not because of Aquatic, mind you (that movie’s a turd, and I don’t trust anyone who likes it)—I was talking to PLAYBACK:stl’s then Books Editor (and current St. Louis Magazine editor) Steven Schenkenberg about why I thought it sucked, and I blamed it on Baumbach’s replacing Wes Anderson’s usual writing partner, Owen Wilson. Steve promptly pointed me in the direction of Baumbach’s directorial debut, the then-obscure, not-on-DVD, long-out-of-print-on-VHS Kicking & Screaming (which the Criterion Collection has since released on DVD, thankfully). This, as it happens, is a masterpiece, so I could no longer blame Aquatic on Baumbach (although I still contend that Anderson desperately needs to take Wilson back as a writing partner). Soon thereafter I caught The Squid and the Whale at Sundance, which I liked a lot, and went back and saw Baumbach’s only other film at that point, Mr. Jealousy, which maybe isn’t great but is entirely watchable, and I promptly took membership in the Baumbach fan club.

After having seen Baumbach’s new one, Margot at the Wedding, though, I’m starting to think that Aquatic was Baumbach’s fault after all. Not that Margot is especially bad, but it is bad in the same way that Aquatic was bad—it feels like a pale imitation of the director’s previous work, and, while not out-and-out bad, it is about half the film that the director’s previous works were. Where Baumbach’s other films have so nicely skewered marriage and yuppies and writers, Margot at the Wedding tries to go after marriage, but never quite gets there, tries to contrast yuppies against more grounded folk, but it feels forced, and tries to highlight the pretensions of writers, which is not really fleshed out as much as it should be (although there is one close-to-great scene at a book signing that almost accomplishes this).

Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh—Baumbach’s wife, oddly enough) haven’t spoken in years, for reasons that don’t come forth until the last half of the movie (and are anticlimactic when finally revealed). But when Pauline announces her engagement to Malcolm (Jack Black), Margot, thinking she is acting selfless when in fact she is not really wanted, decides to attend the wedding, which is where the Wedding begins. The majority of the film examines the way two sisters who were maybe once best friends but grew estranged from one another fast and hard interact under already stressful circumstances.

While the film feels like a fairly obvious Oscar bid from the nearly-always-wonderful Nicole Kidman, the best performance in the film actually comes from Jack Black. I was excited when he started getting cast in roles that weren’t so obvious for his persona (like in King Kong, for example), but he’s blown nearly every opportunity he’s gotten. Black’s Malcolm here is a lot like Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love insofar as it feels like a logical dramatic extension of the actor’s already existing specialty psychopath, as opposed to an actual stretch for the performer. Regardless, he does great work.

Unfortunately, Black is the only real standout (Baumbach is usually a great director of actors), and, in addition to the merely adequate performances from otherwise great actors, a lot of the people behind the scenes really blew it. The film is really, really muddy and ugly and sloppily shot—it looks like the projector’s bulb is about to burn out, and is maybe getting kicked every now and then, and I was alarmed to find in the credits that it was shot by Harris Savides, the DP behind such great-looking films as Elephant and Zodiac. It can be argued that Baumbach wanted the film to look muddy and ugly and sloppy, but where in the past he achieved this through great characterization, now he’s resorting to half-baked camera tricks to try to get the audience to feel the way he wants them to feel. Maybe next time he’ll employ a swelling orchestral score during emotional scenes.

Despite all this, I still haven’t given up hope on Baumbach’s next one. He was only 25 when he made Kicking & Screaming; he’s bound to have a long, good career ahead of him. And besides, The Darjeeling Limited was much better than The Life Aquatic, which proves that there’s always hope. | Pete Timmermann

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