Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/24/08.
French director Eric Rohmer is one of France's premier directors that came out the French New Wave movement in the 1960s. Making films on various subjects about morality, relationships, and seasons in a series of films. Rohmer continues to make films as in 2007, the director was finding himself becoming an influence in American cinema. Just as he was releasing a new film entitled Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon, two American feature films were released inspired by Rohmer's work. The first was a Chris Rock comedy I Think I Love My Wife which the comedian who also co-wrote and directed this remake of Rohmer's 1972 film L'Amour l'apres-midi (Love in the Afternoon). The second Rohmer-inspired film that came out later in 2007 came from Noah Baumbach as he took inspiration from Rohmer's 1983 film Pauline a la plage (Pauline at the Beach) that was about a teenager discovering love in the summer at the beach. Baumbach's version is in the form of a character-driven comedy-drama entitled Margot at the Wedding.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Margot at the Wedding tells the story of a woman who decides to attend her sister's wedding. Upon meeting her groom, tension arrive between the two sisters. A film about family dynamics and sibling relationships, the film explores some of Baumbach's themes of family dysfunctions that he explored in his 2005 film The Squid & the Whale as he casts Nicole Kidman in the role of Margot and his own wife Jennifer Jason Leigh as her free-spirited sister Pauline. Also starring Jack Black, John Turturro, Halley Feiffer, Zane Pais, Flora Cross, and Ciaran Hinds. Margot at the Wedding is a complex yet complicated film from Noah Baumbach.
Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) are riding on a train as they attend the wedding of Margot's younger sister Pauline. After taking a ride on a ferry, they wait for to be at the family home as they're picked up by Pauline's daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) and Malcolm (Jack Black) who turns out to be Pauline's fiance`. While Margot and Pauline haven't spoken in years, Pauline is happy to see that Margot is there as Malcolm reveals to be an unemployed musician/painter still trying to find a job. Yet, Pauline's work as a teacher still manages to keep them well financially. Margot doesn't seem pleased at Pauline's choice while learns that Pauline is pregnant. While Claude and Ingrid walk around a trail nearby the house with their dog, Pauline reveals some trouble with the neighbors known as the Voglers in whom Margot manages to cause more trouble during a walk.
When Margot, Pauline, Malcolm, Claude, and Ingrid are invited to swim at the home of Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), everyone goes except for Malcolm who seems uncomfortable in the presence of Dick's teenage daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer). During one night when the adults decide to go out, Claude begins to have a crush on Maisy much to Ingrid's dismay. Things become more complicated when Margot reveals to Pauline that she's having an affair with Dick making Pauline believe that she came here to meet with Dick while still being married to Jim (John Turturro). Jim arrives briefly to celebrate Pauline's marriage as Margot’s criticism towards Malcolm makes him feel insecure.
With the wedding day approaching, Claude gets attacked by the Voglers' son as he finds more comfort in Pauline rather than his neurotic, critical mother. Then during a public conversation about a book with Dick in front of book readers, things go bad when Margot is asked a very personal question. Things worsen when Margot's snide comments about everything put things into a tailspin in which Malcolm’s insecurities get the worst of him in front of Pauline. Suddenly, everything crashes down as old tension between the two sisters starts to boil with Margot suddenly being targeted for all of the family drama.
Taking a lot of cues from Eric Rohmer, Noah Baumbach creates a story that is filled with a lot of family drama along with dabbles of humor. Unfortunately, the story is so high brow with all of these talks of psychological babble and an unlikeable protagonist, it's a story that's hard to delve into. Probably because some of the characters Baumbach creates kind of fall into stereotypes. The neurotic, snotty protagonist; her free-spirited, slacker-like sister; and a lazy, cynical, childlike loser. It's not that Baumbach kind of puts them into those stereotypes, there's just isn't much depth for those characters to connect with. Only the situations involving the characters that include family dysfunction is the one plot-point that audiences can relate to.
Baumbach's direction does make up for the film's dense and babbling script. Baumbach creates an intimate portrait with the film's hand-held camera style that is also in tune with his love for the French New Wave. Even in that style of hand-held cameras, comedic moments, and abrupt shift scenes can work and sometimes, doesn't. There's a moment when following a dramatic scene involving Margot and Claude, it then transitions into a very abrupt scene of Margot at the book store her for her public conversation. It's really Baumbach's direction rather than the editing that causes that abrupt shift that will make the audience feel baffled. While he does underplay the film’s drama and humor. The result is Baumbach starting to realize his craft as a director but still needs work to trying to make a coherent story that audiences can relate to.
Cinematographer Harris Savides does a wonderful job with the film's intimate yet, somewhat grainy look as the look of the film doesn't really have much colors except for a very scenes with sunlight. Most of the look is kind of desolate to convey the mood of the film while the interior settings are shown with little light for its sense of intimacy. Editor Carol Littleton does some fantastic work on the film's editing with the use of jump-cuts and transitions though its flawed is in more due to stylistic choices from what Baumbach wanted. Even in scenes where the transitions from one sequence to another where things feel abrupt.
Production designer Anne Ross and art director Adam Stockhausen do an excellent job in creating the bohemian look of Pauline's home that is filled with pictures on the refrigerator, loads of antiques and such to give the film that look. Costume designer Ann Roth also plays to that bohemian look with loose clothing for the likes of Pauline and Malcolm to the more city yet loose look of Margot that included her red-pink hat. Sound designer Paul Urmson and sound editor Ruth Hernandez help create an atmosphere for the film's exterior scenes that includes the location near the beach, woods, and such as well as the noise of cars driving around upstate New York. Music supervisor George Drakoulias creates a unique soundtrack filled with music from the likes of Dion, Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham of Luna, Blondie, and other types of music to convey the sense of youth in both Margot and Pauline.
The casting by Douglas Aibel is wonderfully assembled with small performances Seth Barrish and Matthew Arkin as a gay couple Margot makes unflattering comments towards and Michael Cullen as the creepy Mr. Vogler with Justin Roth as his son. Halley Feiffer, who was previously in The Squid & the Whale, is good as the seductive Maisy who tries to woo the young Claude while flirting with the very uncomfortable Malcolm. Ciaran Hinds is excellent as Margot's publisher/lover Dick Koosman who is snobbish and smug in which he makes Malcolm uncomfortable and then says hurtful things towards Margot. John Turturro is good in his brief role as Claude's father who cares for Margot as he wonders about their strained marriage in which his feelings towards her, makes her confused. Flora Cross is good though not as memorable as Ingrid, Claude's aloof cousin who seems to care more about her dog than anything else while singing a song for the wedding unaware of where she is.
Zane Pais is great as Margot's son Claude who is trying to deal with his mother's neurotic behavior while finding some comfort in Pauline as he deals with things like girls and such in his own adolescence. Jack Black is good as the slacker Malcolm where Black proves to be a capable actor in doing both comedy and drama as he plays a man who is so used to disappointments and not trying to let Pauline down. The only flaw in Black's performance is in scenes where he’s really emotional where it's pretty bad in a funny way. It's not Black's fault for this flaw since he's trying very hard, it's just that he needs to take more time in delving into those moments.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as the free-spirited Pauline who is trying to deal with Malcolm's shortcomings as a man along with the presence of her sister Margot. Leigh's performance is wonderfully restrained as she presents a character that is Margot's opposite as free, caring, and sometimes aggressive as she deals with her older sister's constant criticisms and such. Nicole Kidman delivers her best performance since Lars Von Trier's 2003 film Dogville after years of lackluster films and uninspired performances. Kidman delivers a subtle yet humorous performance as a neurotic writer who is always saying bad things, making harsh criticisms, and such in which she is a very unlikeable character. Though Kidman at times falters in her voice where she would be saying things in her native Australian accent, she does manage to create a character, though stereotypical, an amazing presence to watch. Kidman also has great rapport with Leigh in which the two actresses have great camaraderie together in the scenes they're in.
The Region 1 DVD from Paramount Vantage presents the film in the widescreen format for 16x9 TVS with 5.1 Surround Sound for English and Spanish along with English, Spanish, and French subtitles. The special features include two different trailers for this film along with films like Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, Susanne Bier's Things We Lost in the Fire, Marc Forster's The Kite Runner, and the Farelly Brothers' The Heartbreak Kid. The big special feature is a 14-minute conversation segment with director Noah Baumbach and his wife/star Jennifer Jason Leigh.
The couple basically talk about the film's story and casting. Baumbach talks about Nicole Kidman whom he met a coffee shop as the two didn’t want to talk to each other as he passed his script to her. The next day, he got a call from saying she wants to do the film. Leigh talks about Kidman's approach to acting which is similar to her own approach where they both got along easily. The two also talked about Jack Black who was approached for his comedic talents and didn't give into pressure into being serious. They also talked about Zane Pais’ performance which Baumbach refers to as natural while delving into the story and characters along with his approach to the film.
While not as accessible as The Squid & the Whale or as funny as Kicking & Screaming, Margot at the Wedding is still a good film from Noah Baumbach that features superb performances from Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. While the film does raise interest in the works of Eric Rohmer, it's suggested to see Pauline at the Beach which is a superior film than Baumbach's own reinterpretation. Fans of Nicole Kidman will be glad to see the actress return to more straightforward, dramatic territory while Jennifer Jason Leigh delivers another fantastic performance as well. In the end, though it's not a great film but not a bad one either, Margot at the Wedding is still a film that is worth watching for its performances.
Noah Baumbach Films: Kicking & Screaming - Highball - Mr. Jealousy - The Squid & the Whale - Greenberg - Frances Ha - While We're Young - Mistress America - De Palma - The Auteurs #41: Noah Baumbach
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