Monday, December 10, 2007

Queasy, Cruel, Comic: Margot at the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding is a movie that, above all else, turns on the delicious discomforts of recognition. Recognition of self in family, family in self, and, just as importantly, the lack of any recognition altogether. Discomfort is of course rarely all that delicious in real life, but when sculpted into taut, tense, witty scenarios by writer/director Noah Baumbach, and embodied by the superlative casts he and Douglas Aibel assemble, it can frequently reach queasy, effervescent heights of comic wonder.

The movie begins with successful novelist Margot (Nicole Kidman) wiggling through a corridor on a train leaving her comfort zone of New York City for some island near Long Island. That our titular heroine starts her story in a state of disequilibrium is made complete by the rather ingenious way in which she’s introduced to us: mistaking him for her own teenage son Claude (Zane Pais), she sits beside a complete stranger. Her failure to recognize the hapless, approval-seeking Claude speaks volumes about Margot’s difficulties with and resistance to motherhood, as it does about the sort of humour that Margot at the Wedding runs on. As with Baumbach’s break-out hit The Squid & the Whale, laughs escape from our recognizing the dynamics of dysfunctional families, if not, crucially for the sake of comic surprise, the particularities of the family in question, confirming Tolstoy’s famous line about how all unhappy families are different.

A defining factor in Baumbach’s dissection of family is his emphatic interest in giving his adults very adult stories and his kids stories focused around their eager ambition to penetrate the banal mysteries of adult life. Adults and kids intermingle without having to compromise the overall tone of the movie, which hums along, fuelled by need, injury and the distribution of emotional collateral. With child in tow, though conspicuously sans husband, Margot ostensibly arrives on the quiet island to attend and support the marriage of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to tubby, nervy ex-rocker Malcolm (Jack Black), who she met only recently. Once enveloped by the affluent, small community Margot and Claude are confronted with scenes of sexual and fraternal manipulation and expectation, and in these scenes their disparate age groups become irrelevant. Insecurity becomes an equal opportunity threat to all involved.

Squaring off against sea, shrubs, childhood mementos and a lonely, bare tree, under overcast east coast light rendered with muted beauty by ace cinematographer Harris Savides, Margot and Pauline’s interaction forms a consistent centre to this movie that handles story in the loosest terms it can get away with. Things don’t progress a whole lot in Margot at the Wedding, but the static nature of the drama is engagingly offset by how terrifically funny it all is –and its funny because we keep discovering more and more about how these wildly antagonistic sisters operate. And its hard to imagine this relationship playing as well as it does without one of the most inspired strokes of casting in recent memory.

Kidman and Leigh as sisters still strikes me as an utterly bizarre, unlikely choice, the former actor distinguished by her elegance, taste and understatement, the latter by her ballsy, go-for-broke, sometimes deeply mannered performances. My first thought was: this movie’s not big enough for the two of them. My second was: that’s goddamned brilliant! They’re both so good, so mutually attuned to Baumbach’s style while coming to it from very different sensibilities, that they dangle side by side from this family tree with inspired incongruity: Margot the privately grotesque star of the family, Pauline the more sympathetic, if hopelessly lost black sheep. And when you throw the added wild card of Black into the mix, playing a character that no one, his fiancée included, seems entirely comfortable with, you’ve pretty much sealed the deal as far as comic tension is concerned.

The cruelty that constitutes the stock in trade of Margot never really gets shaken off. Thankfully. But that Margot is such a compulsive bitch most of the time makes her role in the family all the more compelling to work through. Its not just this movie that needs Margot to function, her family needs her too, as a way to reflect back their own weaknesses and conflicted feelings with success as defined by the outside world. And, as jarring as the final gesture made in Margot at the Wedding is, it displays a remarkable flicker of optimism in this mostly nasty, mostly pleasingly shapeless world Baumbach’s created. Out of nowhere, the movie seems to be telling us that we never know when our deeper moral impulses might just leap out, yank us by the lapels, and force us to live up to something better than our conditions promise.

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