Margot at the Wedding
, 04 May 2008
Rather than lightening up after the caustic The Squid and the Whale writer/director Noah Baumbach has gone the other way, getting even darker with this tale of two deeply dysfunctional sisters; Margot (Kidman) and Pauline (Leigh) reuniting for the week of Paulines wedding to Malcolm (Black).
Noah Baumbach can certainly write, but hes no visual stylist. Margot at the Wedding is a flat, dull, ugly looking film, its shot in greys and browns and often looks as dead as the tree that Margot climbs in one scene. Add this to the fact that almost all of the characters, even those who seem at first to be decent, end up being hateful and often malevolent and its easy to see why a lot of critics reacted strongly against this film. Its tough to warm to, and thats deliberate.
Margot is one of the most foul protagonists put on film in a long time; a nasty hateful harridan with barely a redeeming feature, shes vile to everyone around her, particularly her estranged sister, though she still refers to Pauline as my best friend. Its a pretty brave performance on the part of Nicole Kidman, as it goes out of the way to alienate the audience, but its also one of Kidmans best performances in a long time.
Among the rest of the cast Jack Black shows dramatic chops as Malcolm, while also bringing some welcome, if understated, comedy to the table and, odd a couple as they make, theres a genuine connection between him and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Baumbach also prves again that hes adept at getting strong performances from young actors, drawing nice turns from Zane Pais as Margots son and, in a smaller part Flora Cross as Paulines daughter.
It would be easy to lay charges of nepotism at Baumbachs door for casting his wife as Pauline, but then his wife is Jennifer Jason Leigh, and when you get a chance to cast an actor that good you grab it. Watching her play against Kidman is an object lesson in the difference between a good actor and a great one. Strong as Kidman is shes always Nicole Kidman, playing Margot, you can always hear the wheels turn. With Leigh though the actress simply isnt there, she goes away, leaving only Pauline. Its one of the most normal roles Leigh has played and shes absolutely wonderful in it, making Pauline a living breathing person, seemingly effortlessly.
As good as the acting is, though, and as sharply observed as Baumbachs screenplay seems its often hard to care about whats happening, certainly to Margot. The people in this movie, besides Pauline, whos mostly guilty of being naïve, are just so awful to one another that whenever something bad happens to one of them you simply shrug. Thats a problem because, in a piece that is so character driven, you have to be able to care, and as the credits roll you just wont.
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