Margot at the Wedding is Noah Baumbach's darkest film yet, a group atrocity wherein smug, aloof Margot (Nicole Kidman), her sharp-tongued hippie sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her sister's brooding fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black), and a trio of confused and awkward teenagers from numerous failed marriages and couplings gather for an ostensibly festive occasion, only to spit deadly venom for as long as they can stand to be around each other. The film is so unrelenting in its emphasis on the worst human characteristics that it achieves a kind of diseased purity, like a perfectly round open sore.
Speaking of unpleasant images, Margot at the Wedding is maybe the ugliest movie I've seen all year. It's frequently shot with handheld cameras in natural light, which would have been fine if anyone bothered to check the weather outside or the light levels in any of the rooms inside. As a result, the interior scenes are so dark that everyone seems to read their lines while scuttling around the crawlspace under the house, where most of the film takes place. The actors contribute to this deliberately ugly mise-en-scène, too; it looks like everyone was allowed to work in whatever clothes they slept in the night before.
So Margot at the Wedding is not much to look at. But it's a defiantly written, defiantly literary film. The characters snap off their barbs like chorus gals snapping off line kicks, and everyone is constantly jostling for the emotional upper hand. Kidman and Leigh's moments together play like scenes from an endless horror show they've been restaging since they were kids. Both sisters use the past to wound each other, dredging up unpleasant memories and revising their own futures by standing atop their sibling's shamed carcass.
Everyone in the movie carves out personal space through hostile insults, and no one does it better than Pauline's groom-to-be, a sloppy, half-assed provocateur who is eventually revealed as the most craven one in the bunch. They all feint and dodge in a world where a line like "No one fills the ice-cube trays" is tossed out as a deadly gambit. We've been here before, just not in many movies. Think of playwright Edward Albee's bitter, frustrated marrieds or John Cheever stories gone bananas or furtive John Updike scribblings even he couldn't publish.
I can't say that I would want see such an ugly, mean-spirited movie again. But I also can't say I've seen a recent film so single-minded in its unpleasantness; there isn't a hint of compromise in it. I'm always shocked at people who can laugh at such desperate, pathetic verbal sparring, but I'm told this film accurately depicts a kind of communicatory rawness common among East Coast residents at a certain level of intellectual force and emotional weakness. Fair enough. Best to wave goodbye to this film, admire it from a safe distance, and let it saunter along and frighten people in one art house after another, rid of my provincial squeamishness forever.
Margot at the Wedding
Opens Friday, December 21st
Studio on the Square