By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Margot at the Wedding,” Paramount Classics, 2007]
There are two family trees in Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding,” and both are in deep trouble. The one in the backyard of the Zellers’ house is overgrown. Neighbors say it’s dead and demand it be cut down. The Zellers themselves can’t agree on anything except the fact that the tree must stay, protecting it as a way of clinging to their own flimsy relationships.
The title character (played by Nicole Kidman) returns home with her son Claude (Zane Pais) for the title nuptials of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s real-life wife). Margot’s thoroughly convinced that Pauline’s sad-sack fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black) isn’t good enough for her sister, just as we’re convinced that Margot is probably projecting some of her own marital dissatisfaction onto the situation. Like Baumbach’s last film, the wonderful “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot” explores how resilient families truly are in the wake of disintegrating marriages.
Whether these stories are autobiographical or not, Baumbach clearly understands dysfunctional families. In the case of “Margot at the Wedding” though, he may have invented one so convincingly screwed up, so far beyond repair that spending 90 loveless, awkward minutes with them could be seen as a waste of time. “The Squid and the Whale”‘s Berkmans were at odds, but likeably so; the Zellers are similarly unhappy, but they don’t share the sweetness and wry sense of humor that made their predecessors so entertaining. Margot’s most ironically poignant line comes at the end of the film when she tells Claude, “It’s good you’re going. I wouldn’t want to be around me either.” It’s a sentiment many audience members will share.
That’s unfortunate, because Baumbach remains a clever writer, and his skills as a director continue to grow. Nothing is overlooked, and you have to admire how Baumbach micromanages scenes to make big points with little events consider the way he punctuates a particularly uncomfortable scene at a pool party with the discovery of a dead mouse in the deep end. “Margot” is far and away his best-looking and most carefully visually crafted film as a director, and the underlit interiors and muted colors aesthetic augments the story’s emotional realism. He also draws a wonderful performance out of Black, who is at his funniest in a role that isn’t necessarily written all that humorously, drawing the laughs out with delivery, posture and glances (his physique and lack of shame in his underwear helps with the chuckles too). The movie would probably be better off, in fact, if it was “Malcolm at the Wedding.”
But it’s Margot at the wedding, and so the movie hangs on her; the way she rejects her husband and her new lover; the way she treats Claude more like a sibling, or even a psychiatrist, than a son. She’s self-obsessed, yet totally devoid of self-awareness. That contradiction is never more fully on display as the scene when Margot decides to climb that dead family tree in order to prove just how good she used to be at climbing trees, only to realize that once she gets up there she can’t get back down. And now she’s stuck.