Writer-director Noah Baumbach is often identified with a group of young white filmmakers who comprise a new American New Wave (David O. Russell, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze, P.T. Anderson, David Gordon Green, and others). But he really should be appointed head of the “splat pack” over Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, James Wan, et al. He could teach them something.
Margot at the Wedding has all the tension and jolts that those splat directors clumsily strive for. It isn’t a horror flick, but it moves and schemes like a great one. The gore here isn’t found in blood-’n’-guts, just via a family of thin-skinned, overeducated neurotics eviscerating each other (and themselves) emotionally. Grisly stuff. But Baumbach’s mastery doesn’t let you look away or exhale until knots of accumulated tension climax in fits of nervous laughter or loosen into surprisingly tender revelations. His brand of splatter is humiliation. Sounds juvenile, but he’s clearly wrestling with something so personal here, and rendering it in such an intimate voice, that we don’t recoil, just fight through to the moments of grace, good humor and insight.
New York literary star Margot (Nicole Kidman) drags her son Claude (Zan Pais) to visit her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at their parents’ old home upstate. Pauline has taken over the inherited house and, by Margot’s estimation, has disgraced it by getting engaged to shiftless slob Malcolm (Jack Black). Not that she lets on to Pauline. Though they weren’t on speaking terms before the visit, Pauline gets the mistaken impression that Margot is here to repair their hostile relationship before the big wedding. Only later does it come to light that the house is conveniently near a stop on her latest book tour, and just down the road from another author she’s sleeping with.
These women talk a lot, dissecting each other’s shortcomings and suggesting ways to correct them with concern in their sisterly gestures but disdain in their eyes. There isn’t much music in these early passages, but Baumbach covers them with such jazzy, conversational realism, I could almost hear Nina Simone’s sing-songy croon, “They burn their hearts so much/that death is just a naaame,” in her cover of “The Desperate Ones.” Margot and Pauline’s desperation gives the film its electricity, but Baumbach doesn’t simply settle on the spectacle of their unhappiness. That’s for less ambitious writer-directors. Margot at the Wedding passes through several points of view, not to get everybody’s side of the story, just their experience of it: Slightly androgynous mama’s boy Claude’s confusion at his mother’s adoration/disgust; Malcolm’s insecurities; Pauline’s near-acrobatic attempts to find common ground with Margot. Baumbach achieves an Altman-like tapestry effect not by herding his ensemble into busy master shots but by attacking every scene from one character’s distinct perspective.
A scene where Pauline dares compulsively competitive Margot to climb a backyard tree (like she used to) epitomizes Baumbach’s command at manipulating these tensions. It’s Hitchcockian. My pulse rate shot up as Margot went further and further up the tree, on poorer and poorer footing. Baumbach ties this simple suspense to something more than “Will she fall?” This is Margot-the-control-freak-inquisitor’s moment to prove she’s not just a fault-finding machine; that she can be fun, human and in control. If she falls or backs down, it will be her first time on the receiving end of humiliation during this visit.
Nicole Kidman plugs into the role of Margot with the ease of Rudy Ray Moore playing Dolemite. Critics joked that she was miscast as a mother fighting off the alien onslaught in The Invasion because she’s already a pod person, but they’re wrong. Kidman is a warm-blooded actor; she’s just no good at playing “nice.” She was weak in The Invasion because her character was a fragile sweetie who had to find her strength. You could see her faking softness the way Jennifer Lopez chafed at playing a mousy battered wife in Enough. Margot is every bit as false and brittle as Invasion-Kidman when trying to show her loved ones a generosity of spirit that doesn’t exist. Perfect fit. Kidman doesn’t forget the most important fact of a phony’s predicament: They’re terrified of rejection, sick with loneliness.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Pauline as the earthier of the sisters, or at least the one who’s making an effort to be less of an uncompromising elitist. She’s much smarter than Malcolm, but his passion and lack of pretension are enough for her, at least until Margot’s disapproval shakes her faith in him. Just as Kidman is perfectly at home delivering crisp platitdues through a tight smile, Leigh seems most comfortable with her hair mussed, sitting Indian-style and barefoot in loose garb.
Watching all these flailing adults as if from the stands at a disastrous tennis match, the kids in Margot at the Wedding do their best not to be anything like them. Too late. Claude, Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) and the trampy teen babysitter Maisy (Halley Feiffer) are already the precocious, seen-it-all kids Pauline and Margot once were. Claude looks barely out of junior high school, but Margot casually advises him to wear condoms if he gets into any action. Despite having no illusions about sex or relationships left to shatter (short of actually doing it), he’s still clinging to his preadolescent role as Mom’s little helper. Through Claude, Baumbach and Pais collaborate on the film’s richest, saddest characterization. Claude’s smart and tough-minded, but also so concerned with what his mother thinks of him that her impending breakdown is bound to hurt him most.
In a way, Jack Black plays the biggest kid. His thirtysomething adolescent routine works for failed artist Malcolm, since Baumbach keeps Black’s arena-sized charisma dialed down to this film’s modest scale. Only when Malcolm cries hysterically during a confession of infidelity to Pauline does Black go out of control and cheapen the film a bit. Still, even though Malcolm proves to be a creep and a weakling, he comes off damn near heroic in contrast to Jim (John Turturro), Margot’s mainipulative soon-to-be ex-husband and her novelist lover Dick (Ciarán Hinds)—two insufferably suave, smug professional men. I kept waiting for straight-shooter Malcolm to pull these phonies’ cards, but Baumbach resists easy underdog romanticism. Everybody’s sort of an asshole in this picture’s acid rain world.
Kind of late to bring this up, but Margot at the Wedding is a comedy. What makes it a comedy is largely a function of Baumbach’s “horror” aesthetic (abetted by Harris Savides’ underexposed natural lighting) and scene rhythms (picture edited by Carol Littleton, veteran of the orchestrated domestic chaos in E.T.). The jokes build and resound like a good, honest fright. Baumbach’s material may be novelistic in complexity, but his storytelling is strictly in the moment.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.