What a drag that Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding suggests the happiness of its characters can be traced back to a tree, rotting away according to the Deliverance clan that lives next door to the childhood home of Margot Zeller (Nicole Kidman) and her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). This is a slightly more animate metaphor than the Pandora’s-Box-as-museum-diorama from The Squid and the Whale, though it’s ultimately as reductive in meaning. Arriving at the manse just prior to Pauline’s wedding, Margot climbs the tree only to find it impossible to come down—the same story from way back in the day, with firemen ushering her down and Pauline taking pleasure in her sister’s humiliation. Strangely, this show of faux courage and ridicule was a sign of the family’s happiness, and the film wonders if Margot and Pauline can ever return to such joy.
Margot, with her androgynous son Claude (Zane Pais) in tow, comes to visit Pauline, who is prone to staring at people just above eye level, after not having spoken to each other in two years. A monster without prejudice and on the brink of divorce, Margot cannibalizes everyone in her path, demeaning her son’s appearance, spilling the beans about Pauline’s pregnancy, ridiculing her sister’s fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), reprimanding the next-door neighbor’s parenting skills, and implying that this trip to the Hamptons also gives her a reason to canoodle with an old flame (Cirián Hands). The woman is more treacherous than Hannibal Lecter, but rather than illuminate the roots of Margot’s callousness, Baumbach wallows in it. No one in the family is a psychologist, but you wouldn’t know that from the way they talk to each other or openly and unnaturally diagnose their own problems: After a game of croquet meets with too much interruption, Margot walks away in a huff, mumbling under her breath, “This is why I hate games…I hate what it does to me.” Margot’s pathology is such that she doesn’t know what she does to her own self.
All these characters are intolerable, except perhaps for Black’s Malcolm, who serves as a necessary (and rather obvious) viewer surrogate throughout, but one of Baumbach’s weaknesses as a writer is calling attention to the games he himself plays, and so we get a scene where Malcolm expresses aloud that he’s the only normal person in his sphere. (The tragedy of the film is how easily its wit turns to audience condescension.) Baumbach, who aspires to the humanism of vintage Rohmer (the title of the film is an obvious play on Pauline at the Beach) but whose narrow vision is closer in spirit to latter-day Woody Allen, is more literate than cinematic, though also prone to literal-mindedness. He crafts some very clever jokes, though they’re often couched within lead-footed scenes of characters learning something rudimentary about life and themselves by cruel example, as in Pauline shitting her panties or Margot, while driving with her husband (John Turturro), wanting to leave a woman and her hurt dog by the side of the road.
It’s futile to harp on the smugness of Baumbach’s characters when Baumbach’s writing is the problem. As in The Squid and the Whale, the cast brings a freshness and spontaneity to what is a rather suffocating compendium of tidy Screenwriting 101 gestures. Claude spots a dead mouse at the bottom of a pool after falling into the water, but there’s no poetry to Baumbach’s art so the scene does not transcend preciousness. More noxious, if only because it’s less throwaway, is a scene during which Claude’s cousin describes how she left a piece of skin behind in a movie theater so it could watch movies all its life, and by the time the skin conversation comes up again, so have a dozen other thematic tropes: Twice Margot brings up how she has problems remembering words, and a scene of Margot frustratingly masturbating seems to exist for no reason than to have Claude bring up how he successfully whacked off inside Pauline’s bathroom. Like Malcom’s mustache, it’s all “meant to be funny,” though the effect is more like drowning.