At the outset of the 2007 New York Film Festival, Rex Reed, now toiling for the New York Observer, panned the three biggest flicks, "Darjeeling Limited", "Margot at the Wedding" and "I'm Not There", under the headline "Wes is More: Pretension Pollutes the New York Film Festival." It was a very entertaining screed which you can still read here, but I'm pleased to report that with "Margot at the Wedding," at least, he was dead wrong in my book.
Be warned going in: This is, by design, one of the most claustrophobic movies you'll ever see, and it contains some of the most emotionally disturbed characters I've seen on the big screen in many years. So, how in the world could this be enjoyable? For me, it boiled down to not whether or not you like any of them, which I actually did, but whether or not you can believe in or identify with them, which I perhaps disturbingly could to.
Like his friend Wes Anderson but with much more depth, Noah Baumbach continues to explore the lives of academics who have had more success professionally than in their private (or not-so-much-so) lives. Here his main character is the titular Margot, a novelist played by a much-frumpier-than-usual Nicole Kidman. As her marriage to fellow writer Jon Turturro (who makes a much-too-brief appearance) is falling apart, she travels to her childhood home to celebrate and, more accurately, try to tear down her sister Pauline's impending marriage to Malcolm, a miscreant who specializes in writing letters to the editor.
The beauty in this dysfunction comes in seeing how Pauline, played by the much-missed Jennifer Jason Leigh (wife of Mr. Baumbach), and Margot riff off each other. They clearly have deep-rooted problems that stem from childhood and have been so embedded that they can only be addressed by laughing them off, which may make you squirm in your seat but just seemed like a perfectly natural defense mechanism to me. Neel Mehta, a frequent and always-welcome visitor here, said he would appreciate knowing going into a movie what kind of issues are dealt with, so I'll let out the tiny spoiler that it has something to do with physical and possibly sexual abuse (I'm not really spoiling too much here because, since they're unable to really talk about it, it's only hinted at here.)
Somewhat lost in the shadows is Jack Black's Malcolm, a thoroughly annoying hanger-on until he had what was, for me, at least, his only genuine moment when he finally confesses to a rather heinous mistake. It will definitely divide viewers, but watching him quickly unravel when caught in a lie just worked for me. Ciaran Hinds, easily one of my favorite actors, also makes a much-too-brief appearance in what is, by design, a movie that's dominated by sisters Kidman and Leigh.
My only real quibble, and it is only a quibble with a movie that I otherwise loved (and will definitely put in my top 10 for 2007 to come soon), is in the lighting. In his attempt to make it seem like we are intruding on a genuine family affair, Baumbach films the scenes inside the house with only natural - and often very muddy - light. I know what he was going for there, but it just made the movie hard to look at in stretches.
So, on Mr. Reed's troika of supposed pretension, I'm now one for two. I'm sad to report that he was way too harsh but basically right about "Darjeeling Limited," but just as happy to hopefully debunk his thrashing of "Margot at the Wedding." I look forward to seeing "I'm Not There" soon to finish out the cycle. Peace out.
P.S.: A quick trip to the IMDB has revealed that Jennifer Jason Leigh has two acting credits listed for 2008, including a role in Charlie Kaufman's next flick, "Synecdoche, New York." A hearty huzzah to that!