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Margot at the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding, written and directed by Noah Baumbach (and also, like his last film, The Squid and the Whale, based on autobiographical material), has an intensely European look and feel - the look and feel of a European movie that is determined not to resemble anything that ever came out of Hollywood. The jumpy camera is usually too close or too far away, and the story doesn't seem to go anywhere. But the camera is always right where it needs to be for the big moments - Jennifer Jason Leigh has never looked more formidable than she does in her character's reaction shots to a confession of infidelity. And, at the very end of the movie, the title character comes to grips with her priorities at last - however temporarily.

Here's how good Nicole Kidman is as Margot: in her one scene alone with the man her sister plans to marry (Jack Black), you root for him, Malcolm. Ms Kidman has unwrapped carefully-stored bits of her breathtaking performance as Suzanne Stone in To Die For, and given them a less sociopathic airing. Margot, like Suzanne, pouts ominously when she's not pleased with circumstances. But the damage that Margot wreaks is emotional and almost incidental, not murderous. Both characters are narcissists, but Margot is lucky enough to inhabit a world that gives her the respect that it denies Suzanne. Margot has been published in the better magazines (The New Yorker, Harper's). Her stories artfully recycle her family life, in at least one case making it clear to the model for a character that she ought to get out of a marriage. Margot's only problem seems to be that her life is as messy as her stories are precise. She evidently has no idea at all of how to live. 

Not that she's humble, or stingy with her advice. On the contrary, she arrives at her family's country home,* now owned by her sister, Pauline (Ms Leigh), with a load of "helpful" suggestions, the most pressing of which is that Pauline is much too good for schlumpy Malcolm. As Pauline is about to marry this fellow, and is actually already pregnant by him, Margot's judgment is not altogether welcome, but Pauline takes it in stride. She has her doubts, too, and, if she has overcome them, she can understand her sister's. Pauline genuinely admires Margot, and wants her approval, even though she's used to being kicked by her big sister's contemptuous disdain. Margot at the Wedding is remarkable not least as a film in which Ms Leigh does not throw any disturbingly unusual tantrums.

If Margot is a bad sister, she is an even worse mother - although one suspects that her pubescent son, Claude, will survive intact. Claude is poised at an interesting moment. He has always been his mother's confidant, one can tell, not because he's her "little man" but simply because he's intelligent enough to understand her, or at least to ask her to explain herself. But Margot is about to lose Claude to Girls, something that she senses uneasily but inappropriately promotes. ("Don't do anything with Maisy [an amiably slatternly Halley Feiffer]," she advises Claude as she applies her eye-liner, "but if you do, use a condom." Gee, thanks, Ma.) Zane Pais, whose lustrous locks confused me into thinking that he was a girl (in the trailer that I saw several times), handles his role very well: while, for the most part, Claude is still a little boy, he has moments of detached insight that protect him from the worst of his mother's heedlessness.

It should not be necessary to mention that, just as Pauline is getting married (for the second time), Margot is trying to break up with her husband (an excellent, understated John Tuturro). Margot has in fact come up to New England from Manhattan not so much to attend Pauline's wedding as to switch horses - a plan that the horse in question, Dick (Ciaran Hinds at his most unctuous) does not embrace with enthusiasm. Mr Baumbach has stirred in all of the usual ingredients of European romantic comedy, which is always more about the family than about the romance. American film allows characters to cut clear of the entangling complications that impede the free-fall of love; Europeans are not so naive. The harder you try to break free, the higher the damage piles up. Mr Baumbach has also discovered that it is the persistence of relationships that makes symbols meaningful, and the film takes advantage of its European sensibility to exploit the symbolism of a great ancient tree that Margot and Pauline have known all their lives. It nearly kills both of them.

But if Mr Baumbach's psychology of film is, as I say, European, his characters are all recognizable East-Coast Americans, blissfully unself-conscious about their neuroses. Mr Black's Malcolm heads the parade of emotional self-exhibitors with such abandon that one gulps with relief at the movie's restraint about literal nudity. Jack Black might at first blush appear to be an odd casting choice for a film with Bergmanesque aspirations, but no one is better at layering the earnestness of life as these people lead it with the ridiculous absurdity of their hang-ups.  A sublime stretch of silent comedy toward the end is punctuated by the sound of Malcolm wailing like a baby as revenge is wrought. The scene is somewhat gruesome, but it is also somewhat hilarious. Then there is the pair of confrontations in which Claude and Malcolm, respectively, betray distinctly unmanly impulses. Where Mr Baumbach's men are perhaps rather childish, his women are almost too seasoned. When Pauline's young daughter, Ingrid (Flora Cross), tells her aunt that she's never getting married, she sounds like an old woman who wishes that she hadn't.

If Margot at the Wedding does not have you laughing within the first fifteen minutes - and I mean laughing out loud - then stop watching it; this film is not for you. Noah Baumbach has coaxed a dense tapestry of small, funny gestures from his cast (as well as from Harris Savides, his cinematographer), but anyone who is distracted by the "serious" look of his film will probably miss it. Mr Baumbach's seriousness here - as, I think, was not the case in The Squid and the Whale - is something to look through, not at. It's the difference between finding his unlikable characters annoying and seeing their lives blessed by the grace of comedy. (November 2007)

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