Baumbach amazes with "Margot at the Wedding

By Amy Shaunette

Noah Baumbach is quickly creating a new genre of film, solidified by his new film “Margot at the Wedding,” a dramedy about a dysfunctional family. Sound familiar? It should. Baumbach is perhaps best known for “The Squid and the Whale,” 2005’s hit independent film that won Baumbach an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Rich with complicated, mean-spirited, hateable characters, “Squid” explores a 1980s Brooklyn family in the midst of a nasty divorce. If “Squid” is a ‘divorce movie,’ then “Margot at the Wedding” tackles sibling rivalry.Nicole Kidman plays Margot, a sullen, self-righteous fiction writer with a preteen son and a failing marriage. She and her sister, Pauline, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, haven’t spoken in years after a falling out; the plot centers around their reunion on the eve of Pauline’s wedding. to be held at the family home in the Hamptons. Margot and Pauline are opposites-Margot is cruel while Pauline is sweet; Margot is uptight, Pauline free-spirited. Pauline’s fiancé, Malcom, played by Jack Black, is a sloppy aspiring artist. From the start, it is clear that Margot has deep psychological issues that cause her to verbally attack her family with shocking ferocity. She challenges all of Pauline’s decisions, especially her choice in men, and belittles her son as he struggles with impending adolescence. In short, everybody is a mess. Things get very, very messy.

Baumbach has an uncanny ability to write intricate characters, with unusual quirks, developed pasts and an eerie air of reality. “The Squid and the Whale” was criticized for its characters, who were essentially horrible people-the parents selfish, immature, and hurtful. “Margot” does the same, beautifully. It is nearly impossible to like Margot-in a word, she’s horrible. But one can empathize with her. After all, she must be messed up, right? It brings up the question of just how much mental disorders excuse. Can you be a bitch just because you’re depressed? Does bipolarity excuse snapping at your sister until she cries? How much abuse can you get away with when it’s in the family?

A flawless script mixes with sophisticated acting to make “Margot” intimate, fascinating. Kidman gives an impressive performance, capturing Margot’s physical and verbal mannerisms. Kidman makes Margot seem human, despite her malicious behavior (a steamy masturbation scene helps). Leigh expertly communicates Pauline’s bohemian, I’m-the-fun-sister vibe, switching between vulnerable sensitivity and a sharp fierceness. Black, rarely seen in serious roles, proves himself a versatile actor capable of more than Nacho Libre antics. Playing a Baumbach character can be no easy feat.

The screenplay is steeped in wit, with cutting one-liners and lofty sound nuggets. In one tense but touching moment, Malcom, fearing fatherhood, admits, “I haven’t had that thing yet where you realize you’re not the most important person in the world.” That line is thematic at the heart of the movie, for all the characters are plagued by deep conceit.

At times, “Margot at the Wedding” is hard to enjoy. The cinematography is beautiful, with an impeccable, vintage-inspired set and well-planned costumes, but outside of aesthetics, the film is almost too raw, the characters too grating. But with distance and the right frame of mind, Baumbach’s vision of “Margot” is breathtaking, though perhaps best summed up by another Malcom quote: “I have the emotional version of whatever bad feng shui would be.”

“Margot at the Wedding” is playing at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis, located in Uptown at 1320 Lagoon Avenue. Call 612-812-6006 for showtimes and directions.