Margot at the Wedding
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Noah Bambauch makes it easy to dislike his films. Problem is, he also makes it easy for New York’s media elite to praise them. Start with his style: The Squid and the Whale and Baumbach’s new Margot at the Wedding are two of the decade’s most repellent movies. Visually, both look like mud; their smart-ass, low-budget affectations (shot by high-price cinematographers) bridge lo-fi mumblecore with Conde Nast hipsterism. This anti-aesthetic lays waste to the bromide that nobody sets out to intentionally make a bad movie; Baumbach does. His deliberate ugliness makes him the Lars Von Trier of Brooklyn and the Hamptons.
Baumbach’s characters—picked from New York’s self-punishing literary class—are also repellent. Not since Woody Allen’s Big Apple reign in the 1980s has a filmmaker so shamelessly flattered the professional classes in the guise of exposing them. Baumbach labels their tales with haughty movie titles that are actually New Yorker magazine short-story code, referencing a style of middle-class entitlement and smirk.
Margot at the Wedding is imitation-Salinger, pitting two sisters, novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her artistically floundering older sibling Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who are lifelong cat-fighters. When the sisters reunite for Pauline’s Hamptons marriage to Malcolm (Jack Black), a failed musician, they greet each other with hostile quips about incest, rape, betrayal, loneliness and the inferior mob.
We’ve seen these skittish hateful chicks before, in Woody Allen’s laughable Interiors, but Allen was weaned on the crisis-and-catharsis mode of Ingmar Bergman movies; Baumbauch, the post-Boomer scion of film critics, stays cool. Not sentimental like Allen, or haunted by religious guilt like Bergman, he’s free to be intellectually skeevy. He makes Pauline and Margot reprehensible as a sign of his daring artistic cruelty.
Sure enough, morons think Baumbach’s deep because he wallows in unsightly “truths,” but creatures like Margot and Pauline can be dismissed as dime-store Freud. “What was it about Dad that had us fucking so many guys?” Pauline wonders; and at a public reading of her fiction, Margot pleads for her autobiographical protagonist, “a loathsome character yet we feel a strange sympathy for him.” Both personalities are recognizable—but preferably at distance. Baumbach rubs our noses in their stench through some mixed-up notion that their bad behavior is unconscious and fascinating. But to hear characters brag “I haven’t had that thing yet where you realize you’re not the most important person in the world” or “He’s not ugly, he’s just completely unattractive” is not amusing. It’s a dreary experience.
Appointing himself cinematic enabler to New York’s most obnoxious people, Baumbach makes it obvious that each sister represents one side of his own psyche—just as the parents in Squid and the Whale were embarrassing family self-portraits. He pretends messy Margot and persnickety Pauline are worth our attention because they’re so pathological: They berate each other (and Pauline scolds her androgynous teenage son) fearful that despite advantages of education and money, they’re both really mediocre.
But Margot at the Wedding isn’t a story of neurotics struggling to be loved; it’s an example of Baumbach struggling to validate middlebrow narcissism. He perverts lessons in humanity taught by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and even Wes Anderson, the great visionaries of American family and class warfare. But notice: Baumbach’s sympathy for the devil never extends outside his clan (Pauline’s Hamptons neighbors are depicted as violent weirdos—carnivores!). He domesticates bigotry. The kitchen confrontation between Pauline and Malcolm is a case-in-point: It’s not an ethical, emotional trade-off; each cowardly egotist talks at cross purposes through Baumbach’s smug dialog. He’s always looking for malice and humiliation, as when a rat is discovered at the bottom of the family swimming pool.
Kidman tries making Margot pitiable, but she remains a cold actress. Brave Jennifer Jason Leigh, the finest film actress of the ’90s, gets disgraced. Baumbach not only turns Leigh’s fearlessness into Isabelle Huppert-style masochism, he offends her person with a scene where Pauline shits her panties. And we see it. Baumbach can’t guide us through troubled emotions like O’Neill, Williams and Anderson; he leads us into the shallow end of arrogance, conceit and ugliness. The rat at the bottom of the pool is Baumbach himself.
Margot at the Wedding