What does it say about your wedding when your estranged sister’s attendance is a bigger event than the wedding itself? I mean, it’s right there in the title of Noah Baumbach’s dysfunctional family disaster movie. It isn’t called “The Wedding” or “Malcolm and Pauline Get Married”. No, it’s called “Margot at the Wedding”. If your sister at your wedding causes that big a stir, perhaps the invitation would have been better lost in the mail. Still, despite her better judgment and in the interest of progress and healing, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) does invite the sister she still refers to as her closest friend after years of not speaking, to her intimate affair. It is clear her idea was not her best from the moment Margot (Nicole Kidman) steps off the boat and on to the New England shore. Pauline sends her fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), to pick Margot and her eldest son, Claude (Zane Pais), up from the ferry. She claims to be making last minute arrangements back at the house but I suspect it was she and not the house who was not quite ready to receive. Then, when the two are finally face to face, standing in front of the house they grew up in, they smile and make pleasantries but fidget hesitatingly before actually embracing. That awkward moment grows into a whirlwind of deep-seeded pain before long and suddenly rain on the blessed day is hardly the biggest worry for the bride-to-be.
Baumbach scored last time out with his Oscar-nominated “The Squid and the Whale”. He was lauded for his sensitive and honest tale of divorce and how it affects the entire family unit. With “Margot at the Wedding”, he solidifies his reputation for creating believable family ties based on dependence, dysfunction and subtle admiration. Watching the sisters as they sit around the house catching up is voyeuristic as we are often privy to conversations that feel as though they were not meant to be heard. As the sisters flip through old records in their even older house, Baumbach writes decades of experiences into his characters and we, like Malcolm, are latecomers to this dinner party. Director of photography, Harris Savides, draws us even closer to this inner circle by shooting mostly handheld footage in natural lighting and with older lenses. The resulting tone is dark and grainy but nostalgic and rich with history at the same time. At times, we are the quiet cousin who says nothing but stands in the corner with a camera and follows the drama from room to room. It isn’t long before we learn how to interpret the vernacular of this particular family and we find ourselves laughing along inappropriately at the expense of whomever Margot is lovingly ridiculing at the moment. As we laugh though, we care as well.
Kidman and Leigh (Baumbach’s wife) are both marvelous as they walk the very tightly wound lines of their borderline personalities. Baumbach guides their performances into textured characters that seem natural as sisters and strongly rooted as multifaceted people who struggle to be themselves when in the presence of the other. They even possess archetypal qualities without coming across as contrived. Margot is the master of deflection. She is constantly doling out psychological diagnoses to those around her to avoid any fingers pointing back her way. It never dawns on her that as a writer, she actually has no formal foundation to base her opinions on. She cannot understand why Pauline would settle for Malcolm; she picks at Claude to keep him closer; she even attacks her husband (John Turturro) for his good nature because it just makes her feel like a bad person. She is a fatalist to Pauline’s hopeful but defeated optimist. Pauline is damaged but wants to heal and has done so much more than she gives herself credit for. She teeters back and forth between making sneaky, subtle jabs at her sister, habits from her youth, and building new connections so that she can have the sister she always wanted instead of the one she has always had. Only, in the house that Baumbach built, the answer to whether people can ever truly change is not the least bit clear.
Family, even the best examples, can be tricky to negotiate. Spending any extended period of time with the people who both influenced you and hurt you the most in your life can be exhausting. That said, “Margot at the Wedding” can be no less trying. There are those who revel in watching others with deeper dysfunction then their own. It helps them to feel that their lives are not nearly as bad as they thought. There are also others who feel they have enough to juggle already with potentially damaging weddings of their own to survive coming up fast. Why then immerse yourself in a tornado of neuroses and painful memories that are not even your own? Truthfully, you don’t have to. Along those lines, Pauline never needed to invite her sister to her wedding either. Only if she hadn’t, she would have missed out on everything the experience taught her about herself and the potential for progress. This is the genuine beauty of Baumbach’s work. He shares so intensely and personally that he inevitably forces the viewer to deal with their own inner-Margot.
Review by Joseph Bélanger