Defensive Cinema is a series devoted to films seemingly dismissed by the greater population. And me getting all defensive like and telling you why my opinions hold more water than yours.
"Margot tried to murder me when we were girls. She put me on a baking sheet, sprinkled me with paprika and put me in the oven."-Pauline
Margot at the Wedding is a film about what it means to be a family. That includes selling them out for your novel, contemplating their abandonment on a bus, and trying to sabotage their happiest day.
Noah Baumbach's sour little saga is the antithesis of what we usually consider a "family film." Unlike Dan in Real Life, another 2007 film about ties that bind, Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her bloodline don't engage in talent shows and morale-boosting morning workouts. The sisters in Margot at the Wedding get their heartiest laughs from a relative's rape by a horse trainer. It's one of the film's meager moments of warmth and it's cold as ice. But there's more truth, humor and psychological horror in these fractured bonds than anything inside that formulaic fluff labeled "Real Life." Margot's ties may be toxic but their roots are grounded in reality. Sometimes family is there to pick you up, and sometimes they're there to really put you down.
Truthfully Margot's greatest talent, outside of being a "fiction" writer, is the art of the insult: seldom-subtle attempts to bring about her own misery and shortcomings in everyone around her. If only they gave the Booker Prize for that...
Bitterness nibbles away and consumes Margot's daily life, and by effect, those of her loved ones - in particular her confused and attached son, Claude (Zane Pais), and free-spirited but floundering sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When she hears of Pauline's impending vows to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed oaf she's known but a year, Margot's abhorrent agenda is set in motion. Her plan to attend her sister's wedding becomes a cover for her to promote her latest book, start up anew with an old flame, and attempt to detach from her son. All that and she doesn't even bring a gift...
Margot on a good day:
"If you keep telling him he's like everyone else he's going to wonder why he isn't."
"He's not ugly, he's just completely unattractive."
This is a character piece first and foremost - a bruising, scathing, warts and all look at people you'd rather not be related to in real (too real) life. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has pulled prickly truths out of family dysfunction in the past with his heralded The Squid and the Whale, but Margot's story has its own brand of caustic wit. Like Squid it's funny while it scalds. But Margot is a more daring venture for Baumbach because it hardly feigns an interest in audience sympathy, and its muted visuals, while appropriate, are hardly a feast for the eyes. The script is wonderfully woven out of minor moments and somehow it still manages to cut away all the excess; plenty of nuance but it always goes unpronounced. You'd almost have to see the film twice to fully appreciate Baumbach's inventive and organic approach - the way scenes end abruptly, beginnings and endings blur, and those minuscule tidbits carry the bulk of dramatic and comic weight.
"We're supporting her."
Beyond that it's a stage for really superb actors to dig into some fascinating, flawed characters. Jennifer Jason Leigh is such an underused actress, and it could be due to being so close to her husband's script during its development that she gives this part its refreshingly lived-in quality. It's natural and effortless, and one of Leigh's best performances in years.
Of course the highlight, not surprisingly, is Nicole Kidman. It's a showcase of her ability to fully commit to a part - even if her character needs to be committed. Every beat of judgment and venom is masterfully undercut with an unknowing frailty. Likewise, Kidman's "showcase" scene is a subtle knockout. A humdrum Q&A session at her reading turns into her brutal public shaming when she's confronted by the assertion that her treacherous lead character is merely Margot in disguise. She becomes embarrassed, exposed, and then ducks for cover. As delivered by Kidman it's simultaneously funny, odd and wincingly painful; basically Margot at the Wedding in a monologue.
"Why do you assume that -- I mean we all take from life... I had to have our refrigerator repaired the other day, at our apartment in Manhattan, and uhh... I was alone with this guy - I think he was Puerto Rican. He was, um, sent over by Whirlpool, who I think it is makes our fridge... Umm... Although he did say he worked for an independent organization that Whirlpool subcontracts... I think he was retarded. There was an anger in him, and uh... suddenly... suddenly I became afraid for my life. I called, um... Jim, at NYU, and I asked him to come home -- I think it was Frigidaire that made our fridge... I'm going to need to take a moment here."
Seeing as Margot at the Wedding is a film about family, it's appropriate then that at the film's center is the family tree - which Margot attempts climbing and gets stuck, which has roots that are rotting the property, and which threatens to topple over during Pauline's special day. But I guess that's what you get when all your family has to sow are seeds of resentment.
You can watch this movie at iReel.com.