Margot at the Wedding (2007): Baumbach Tale of Two Sisters, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman

Similar in thematic concerns, but lesser in overall quality and impact, Margot at the Wedding is Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to his terrific 2005 Sundance hit, “The Squid and the Whale,” which became a hit in the indie milieu, winning acclaim and Oscar nominations.

After playing the Telluride, Toronto, and New York Film Festivals, Paramount Vantage will release the dramedy in late fall, in time for awards considerations, though strongest prospects seem to be in the acting department.

Once again mining messy but intimate family relationships with his distinctive serio-comic approach, Baumbach tells the story of siblings rivalry by centering on two vastly different sisters, extremely well played by Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (whos married to Baumbach), who bring different acting styles to the fore.

Sharply observed and brutally honest, The Squid and the Whale was an autobiographical film, drawing on Baumbach’s own upbringing by his parents, a scholar-father and writer-critic mother (former colleague of mine Georgia Brown). Cutting right to the bone, that film was poignant and felt like an insiders uncompromising work.

In contrast, despite some strong scenes and authentic dialogue, “Margot at the Wedding” feels like an outsiders film, made by a director who may be sharper in delineating the foibles, phobias, and anxieties of male rather female protags. If memory serves, most of Baumbachs films have centered on male adolescents and young men.

Inevitable comparisons will be made with Georgia, Ulu Grossbards best film, which also starred Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham (in an Oscar-nominated turn) as rival sisters in Seattles music milieu. Grossbards award-winning picture was poignant in depicting sisters who are unequal in talent, generosity of spirit, and other significant attributes.

Margot at the Wedding piles up details about the sisters but ultimately fails to add up to something more coherent or relevant, resulting in a semi-engaging film thats not particularly interesting or poignant in what it has to say about self-absorbed, largely unsympathetic characters.

The movie may have too many neurotic characters for its own good, and since its strategy is to shift radically from one set of characters to another, at then, the experience is emotionally exhausting rather than satisfying.

If in the past, Baumbach emulated the New York comedies of Woody Allen, he now seems inspired by the work of vet French master Eric Roehmer and his moral fables, specifically Pauline at the Beach (Pauline a la Plage), and not just because the name of Jennifer Jason Leighs character is Pauline. Other figures also claim European-French names, such as Claude and Ingrid. I can only guess the influences over the choice of Kidmans character: Margo Channing of All About Eve Patrice Chereaus Queen Margot No matter.

The concept of dysfunctional family, or dysfunctional relationships, is so overused that it might have lost its validity meaning. Even so, Margot at the Wedding describes the love-hate, deeply ambiguous relationship of two sisters whose physical proximity has only made their bond more complicated and complex.

Kidman plays Margot Zeller, an outspoken New York writer, who travels with her adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais) to her old family home, where her estranged but still loving sister Pauline (Leigh) is about to get married. Margot doesn’t approve of Pauline’s fianc, Malcolm (comedian Jack Black), an aspiring musician and unemployed artist, and says so without any hesitation. Trying to talk Pauline out of marrying Malcolm, an obese layabout, who’s often in underwear, Margot charges, “He’s like guys we rejected when we were 16.”

Although more of a moody free-spirit, Pauline is also hampered by bad family heritage, past and present. But she got the family house, which may or may not have caused resentment from Margot. Pauline, who already has a daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross), is pregnant, which is not public knowledge–that is until Margot spills the beans.

The sisters play everyone off of each other, causing greater problems than already exist, exposing secrets and disclosing scandals of various sizes in front of their children and outsiders, too, such as neighbors.

It takes a good deal of wine and dope for Margot to relax, and when she does, she becomes unpredictable, though always marinating an aura of glamour, one that even attracts Malcolm. For a while, she conceals her own agenda. Fed up with her own unfulfilling marriage, she had asked husband Jim (John Turturro) not to join her; of course, he does. Margot’s decision to attend the event is her way of showing rapprochement.

Margot has a local bookstore appearance scheduled with former lover, Dick (Ciaran Hinds), an arrogant, sleazy writer, who puts her on the spot with some intimidating questions; it’s one of the few occasions that Margot is out of control and not playing the upper hand. For his part, Dick has a provocative teenage daughter, Maisy (Hallet Feiffer), who stirs all the males, young and old, around her, including Malcolm.

Margot at the Wedding is not generic or formulaic, like Hollywood films about similar issues, but the film is minor because deep down its truths are neither deep nor revelatory. Thus, we go through the motions of a disastrous reunion of two sisters who, despite being alienated, still dream about burying bad past, at least for the weekend. Expectedly, the intense, enclosed context only magnifies the latent resentments and disguised agendas.

Occasionally, there are alert insights into the minds and lives of the self-involved New York glitterati crowd, the kind of which plays out most of their traumas in public. Some of dialogue exchanges between the sisters are sharp, while others are just trivial, as when the duo discusses the number of their sexual partners (“You wanna count” says Margot), or take a swimming contest, which Margo loses, defiantly and reluctantly.

The children of the sisters also bicker in the same manner. “My mom says your mom is pregnant,” Margot’s son says, to which Pauline’s child retorts back, “My mom says your mom is unreliable.”

Largely, “Margot at the Wedding” is a film about how old scores are never put to sleep, and how new charges and accusations often come to the foredespite good and honorable intentions. Of course, despite chaos and animosity, family ties bind, and this duo is no different than any competing siblings who love and hate each other at the same time.
The film is uneven. The first reel, with its sharp dialogue and strong humor, is wonderful, before the film escalates to a more conventional family melodrama.

The ending of “Margot at the Wedding” is weak, with its suggestion of more hopeful future. And it feels rushed: as if Baumbach the writer didnt know how to end his tale (Unlike Squid and the Whale, which boasts a brilliant finale).

Humanist and poetic realism, of the Jean Renoir and Leo McCarey school, are the saving grace of Baumbach as a filmmaker even when he not very good. Deep down, he knowsand shows–that no matter how horrible life is, there’s always humor to be found in the most painful and absurdist situations.

Both Kidman and Leigh render dominant, fully-realized performances. I suspect the parts have been tailor-made to their specifications as thespians.

Kidman brings to the fore her darker, nastier, more humorous and flamboyant side, last seen in Gus Van Sant “To Die For,” arguably her best work to date. And Baumbach deserves credits for encouraging Kidman, a rather cold, self-contained actress, to let loose verbally, emotionally, and behaviorally. Charged up with better text than usually given, Kidman gives a highly raw and alert turn, with all the nerve endings and neuroses exposed.

Less twitchy and mannered than the usual, Leigh also renders a touching performance, though not as strong as her work in Georgia. Even so, playing a lost soul, with all the mood swings attached, Leigh excels in showing the desperation of a sister who, against all odds and despite all evidence, has not given up her fantasy of being close friends with Margot.

Supporting cast is also good. Black, nominally in the picture for comic relief, digs deeper than the usual into his role as Malcolm, the self-styled artist, and shows his own unexpected insecurities and neuroses.

Pais as Margot’s puberty-pushing son is properly awkward as the alienated son, whose maturity is accelerated due to his peculiar familial and social surroundings. Ciaran Hinds is excellent as Margot’s writing partner and (secret) lover, though naming him Dick may bit a bit too obvious. Also good in small parts are Halley Feiffer as Dicks Lolita-type daughter, and the always reliable John Turturro, as Margot’s spurned husband, a specialty role he could have played in his sleep.
Ace director of photography Harris Savides, who has done marvelous work for Gus Van Sant, offers sharp, autumnal imagery to the Eastern seaboard locale, and his handheld camerawork is splendid. Vet editor Carol Littleton, one of the best in the industry who has singlehandedly saved many flawed pictures, contributes to the dynamic tempo by cutting into scenes mid-way or moving onto other ones while they still go on.

Margot ( Nicole Kidman)
Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh)
Malcolm (Jack Black)
Jim (John Turturro)
Dick (Ciaran Hinds)
Claude (Zane Pais)
Ingrid (Flora Cross)
Maisy (Hallet Feiffer)


A Paramount Vantage release of a Scott Rudin production.
Produced by Rudin.
Co-producer, M. Blair Breard.
Directed, written by Noah Baumbach.
Camera: Harris Savides.
Editor: Carol Littleton.
Production designer: Anne Ross.
Art director: Alan Stockhausen.
Set decorator: Debra Schutt.
Ccostume designer: Ann Roth.
Sound: Drew Kunin.
Sound designer: Paul Urmson.

MPAA rating: R
Running time: 91 Minutes.