Baumbach's "Lost" Classic: MARGOT AT THE WEDDING / by B. Roche

Margot is awful. She approaches people as if to flatter them, with a glint in her eye and a crooked half-smile, but once her prey's defenses are down, she stabs them with a casually cruel remark. She judges and berates her son, her sister, her sister’s fiancé, her boyfriend, her ex-husband, and the neighbors. She shares information others have told her in confidence. She gives unsolicited advice. She writes the private, personal history of those close to her into her short stories, and then acts like she hasn’t, or that it’s not a big deal. 

Nicole Kidman plays the Margot in Margot at the Wedding. She brings this horrible person close to her and makes us feel close to her too, In Noah Baumbach’s most intimate and natural up to that point in his career.

Manhattan writer Margot and her 13-year-old son Claude (Zane Pais) take a train to attend the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at their parent’s former home somewhere on the East Coast (Long Island or Connecticut, I think). It’s been a while since they’re seen each other. Once there, they meet Pauline’s fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black). Pauline also has an 11-year-old daughter, Ingrid (Flora Cross). Malcolm is a former musician, with a mustache he wears ‘as a joke’. He’s slovenly, unemployed and lives off Pauline, spending his time playing guitar, writing op-ed letters, and making plans for future uncompleted projects. There’s little talk of an actual wedding; instead, they all sit around, eat meals, drink wine, play croquette, and have private conversations exposing long-held resentments and revealing each other’s secrets.

Margot and Pauline have a very loving, very tense relationship. It's as if they can keep from dealing with the bigger issues between them as long as they are so openly affectionate. Elegant and successful, Margot is critical of her sister’s more chaotic life. She thinks Pauline can do a lot better, especially where Malcolm’s concerned. Pauline resents Margot’s attitude and paradoxical sensitivity. Many conflicts stop in mid-resolution with Margot’s insistence, and Pauline is left holding the bag, feeling she’s right but unable to get closure. Kidman and Jason Leigh relate to one another with easy intimacy, talking quietly, laughing at each other’s inside jokes. They really could be sisters.

Kidman is incredibly real here – any movie star baggage is left at the door; she is Margot, too smart for her own good, too wrapped up in herself to see it.

The whole cast become their characters just as successfully. Perhaps due to her marriage to Baumbach, Jason-Leigh is very relaxed.  On paper, her character might be a loud, uneasy fireball; but her Pauline is the easiest-going character in the movie. She's cool with her life, until circumstances force her to compare herself to Margot.  Jason Leigh has never shied away from screen nudity, but she’s never seemed so free and casual about her body before this film.

Jack Black effortlessly plays Malcolm as the embodiment of Pauline’s resignation in middle age. He’s her last option. He has a way of walking into every conversation as if his body is saying, “I’ll show them . . . sometime . . . “ In his comic roles, he plays it like he knows where the joke is. Malcolm doesn’t really know the joke is on him; an ironic mustache is still a mustache.

Zane Pais as Claude is believably awkward. With long hair he grew and sunglasses he insisted Margot buy for him, he’s trying hard to fully pole-vault past puberty into the cool guy he thinks he wants to be.  But when Margot takes her small criticisms too far the hurt shows all over him. Pais' demeanor sells a very true-to-life gag about Claude's body odor; teen boys are often the last to know they stink, and how to keep it from happening.  

Flora Cross as Ingrid is present throughout the movie, in backgrounds of scenes when she has no lines, and yet she isn't really there. This is a world for grown-ups and she’s lost. Her dilemma is enforced by the presence of Maisie the babysitter, played by Haley Pfeiffer (who also played the eldest son’s girlfriend in Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale). She’s several years older and learning too much about how to navigate among adults. These minor female characters don’t exist accidentally in a story about adult sisters. They’re Margot and Pauline: The Prequel.

A ubiquitous character actor in period epics, Ciarin Hinds gets a rare opportunity in Margot to play a guy you could actually meet on the street - Margot’s colleague, collaborator, and quasi-lover Dick Koosman. And John Turturro appears briefly as Margot’s subtly selfish husband, as quiet as his federal agent in the Transformers movies is hyper. Hinds and Turturro, more than the rest of the cast, drove home for me that Baumbach has found something genuine in this material.

Baumbach has always had a gift for smart dialogue, but at times in his first few movies I could feel the actors reading the script. Their words and ideas pop, the actors are always well-cast and likable, and yet Kicking & Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, and Highball all feel talky and underdone. Everything clicks into place with Margot at the Wedding. This family is living onscreen. I’d swear they were improvising if Baumbach’s script weren’t online to prove the whole cast is on book.

Inspired by his material and his cast, Baumbach takes his filmmaking in a new direction. He tells his story elliptically. There is no pillow between scenes. Working with editor Carol Littleton, he forcibly picks us up and drops us into the next moment while our heads are still in the moment we just left. Many scenes end on an unexpected line. Scenes are shot handheld with a minimum of coverage.  Longer speeches are edited with jump cuts mirroring the character’s anxiety. That makes us as unsettled as Margot and Pauline, and lacking confidence as Malcolm, as scared as Claude. Without extraneous entrances and exits, with no wide shots of the dinner table or the yard or a tour of the property, we’re lost in a helpful way, forced to change our focus and surprised to see a path through the forest, a beach, an extremely tall tree, two sets of neighbors, a dead pig. All these events and places are challenges and obstacles, arenas of conflict. As a bonus, this storytelling technique results in a movie that’s 88 minutes long, minus end credits.

In Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach used wider, locked down compositions, holding the movie at arm’s length. Margot is enlivened by searching close-ups. K & S played out almost exclusively in lengthy, verbose dialogue scenes. Margot has several mostly wordless sections as well set up, shot, and edited as any suspense sequence or action scene. The tree-climbing scene in particular is by turns funny, triumphant, and thrilling, and its final punchline is a succinct exhale. For once, Baumbach is telling a story which is not completely about him or his peers, and somehow gets closer to it.

There is real pain here between the characters, resentments about family and love withheld and inadequacy, but the characters feeling this pain are all smart, cultured, and witty. Their intelligence creates a subtly poignant dilemma: They’re able to recognize and comment intelligently on their situation yet seem unable to change.

Margot at the Wedding looks amazing.  The film was shot by the late Harris Savides, one of the the best cameraman in the world (The Game, Elephant, Gerry, Zodiac).  Savides worked relatively less in feature films that his peers, and pretty much never on a comedy.  Yet his instincts for gloom and low light are a perfect fit for this story of internalized family pain becoming external. He bathes the characters in warm natural light that feels somewhat sinister. Baumbach works with Savides and his set decorators and wardrobe department to make an autumnal palette enlivened with small colorful details - a pink bucket hat, an orange t-shirt, a kabbalah string. Kidman and Jason-Leigh look like 'regular' people, yet are more radiant and glamorous than in many of their bigger, more prestigious roles.  The movie feels timeless. It could just as easily taken place in the late 60s as now.

I watched Margot at the Wedding twice before I realized there was no musical score. It doesn’t need it, instead strategically employing a few pop songs. Blondie’s great “Union City Blues” is the standout.

Margot moves so suddenly (and well) between tones, it’s difficult to even say what genre it’s in. It’s a comedy with a serious moments, or a drama with humorous touches. Either way, it’s a look at the real lives of fictional characters, and it is funny. Without context, here is some of the dialogue to look forward to in Noah Baumbach’s lesser-discussed masterpiece:

“Just use that information however you like.”

“I have the emotional version of whatever bad feng shui would be.”

“If I could read your handwriting, I’m sure I’d be furious.”

“What would make you think that’s something to draw right now?”

“In my family, there’s a lot of hand-washing. I don’t have it, but my brother does.”