11/16/2007 02:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Screening Liberally Big Picture: Empathizing with Margot At The Wedding

Just don't take me seriously! Well, take me seriously, just not the
fucked-up parts.

- Malcolm (Jack Black), towards the end of Margot At The Wedding

It's a curious feeling to be glad that a good film is over. Typically,
when we breathe a sigh of relief at the theater lights coming up, it's
because the movie was so painfully lousy. Noam Baumbach's Margot At
The Wedding
is just the opposite - it is painfully good. Too good.
Its beautifully bleached out cinematography and brilliant performances
are like the witch leaving treats into a gingerhouse facade which
turns out to be an oven. It is so wickedly skillful at cloaking us, at
entombing us in a world of the emptiest Dorothy Parker witticisms and
the deepest Tennessee Williams despair and the saddest Raymond Carver
awkwardness that we are inclined to take a gasp of air once it's
finished, as if emerging from a stranglehold within an inch of our
lives, publicly thankful that we are not the characters on the screen
while secretly terrified that we might be.

Which is appropriate: Margot At The Wedding is a film about
suffocation. The suffocation of loving a person, any person, whose
behavior speaks more than any promises of requital every could. The
suffocation of houses which are abandoned, save for yourself. The
suffocation of evitable calamity, repeated over and over again.
Evitable, unfortunately, is one of those words like corrigible,
rendered all but obsolete by the in- prefix. What a shame then, that
it sounds odd to the ear to note that every disaster in Margot At
The Wedding
is fully evitable; the film, at times, is like
watching a series of horrendous car wrecks, each entirely avoidable,
with optimal weather conditions and clear skies ahead, until someone
yanks their steering wheel all the way to one side.

That someone tends to be the titular Margot (Nicole Kidman), whom we
see, over and over again, adding hurt where none is necessary. A
conversation with neighbors goes well until she insists they test
their son for Aspergers Syndrome. A  day out with the family is
all smiles and giggles until she pushes a button while feigning
innocence. And so on. Margot, a successful confessional novelist who's
embraced a sort of Manhattanite Sylvia Plath persona, is attending the
wedding of her estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the
man-child Malcolm, a 'professional letter-writer.' In tow with Margot
is her preteen son Claude (Zane Pais), all odd pubescent angles and
bewilderment at how much his family members seem to hate each

And hate each other they do, though we sometimes share his
bewilderment. There is no big revelation scene in this film, no showy
lump of exposition - we're only allowed glimpses of these characters'
past in brief conversational snippets, much like we're a silent guest
to the wedding who doesn't need anything explained for us. We know
that private family exchanges were mined for New Yorker stories, on
which Pauline blames the dissolution of her first marriage. We know
that something very unsavory occured in their household. We know that
Margot is considering leaving her mensch husband, Jim (John Turturro),
in favor of an affair with the cretinous Dick (Ciaran Hinds), a
development she does not tell her son despite her decision to openly
kiss the latter in his presence. But beyond that, the details are

Part of that fuzziness is due to a reticence to explore the past, for
the fear we might be confronted with truths about ourselves - Margot
has nothing much better than a "Oh, c'mon" to offer when Pauline
accuses her of effectively breaking up her first marriage and
potentially aiming to ruin her second before it begins. For my money,
the key point in the film is encapsulated in the above quotation.
Margot, as with every character in this film (and, some might argue,
as with every human being), wants nothing more than to be taken
seriously when good, and explained away when bad.

Every actor in the film inhabits their characters, but I want to take
particular note of Zane Pais, whose portrayal of what is essentially a
betrayed child is reminiscent of Fanny And Alexander in its
potency. There is a scene of almost unbearable cruelty in which Margot
effectively confirms his every adolescent fear, telling him
dispassionately how he used to be so graceful, but has grown so stiff
that he is almost painful to look at. "At least you're still
handsome," she mutters at the child wimpers away. It is one of the
saddest things I've ever seen in a film.

Most films moralize. Some films do so well. A few films make us want
to be better people for our own sake. Fewer still actively make us
want to be kinder people for the sake of others. Margot At The Wedding
is one of those films, a small treasure of despair in a multiplex of
plastic smiles.