Since the new Noah Baumbach movie, The Meyerowitz Chronicles, has arrived, the time seems right to dig out this old review of the director’s fourth feature, released ten years ago. It was Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, his most successful film, by several measures, to that point, amping up expectations for what proved to be a fairly sour cinematic experience. That was Baumbach’s goal, to be sure, but the segue into Bergmanesue drama didn’t particularly suit him.
While generally very good, Margot at the Wedding perhaps could have used a little less dedicated approach to maintaining the integrity of its unlikable characters. His prior film, The Squid and the Whale, unexpectedly established Noah Baumbach as a writer skilled at depicting the emotional abuses that can occur within families and a director unafraid of pushing that material at the audience with discomforting plain-spoken forcefulness. If anything, he ups the ante with Margot.
The film focuses on two sisters reuniting after a stretch of angry silence as a wedding approaches. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the bride-to-be and Nicole Kidman is her domineering sister, a woman seemingly incapable of saying a single thing that isn’t, on some level, intended to wound. Kidman’s character is the most relentlessly negative, but the whole array of characters is loaded down with unpleasant tendencies. Leigh’s character is more commonly victimized, but she also has enough flares of her sibling’s armor-piercing judgment to establish that as a common family trait. Jack Black’s groom-to-be easily lapses into futile fury and other inappropriate behavior. There’s a poisonously egotistical writer with his own cruel streak played by Ciaran Hinds and even a set of creepy backwoods neighbors who grimly stare down the people on the other side of the fence when they’re not stripping down to underpants to gut animals in the kitchen. It gets so pervasive that when John Turturro shows us a relatively nice, well-adjusted guy you wonder how he got there, both into the family and into the movie.
This reservation aside, the film is still of this fine new vintage of Baumbach: intelligent discourse laced with inspired, bitter humor and acted with nakedly honest performances. This bleak picture holds some power because it’s grounded in recognizable truths, truths especially familiar to anyone who has ever had cause to apply the word “dysfunctional” to any part of their family circle. Every line of dialogue is a scar, painful because it is a reminder of old wounds. It’s almost a relief when the closing credits finally appear. That may make for tough going, but it’s also a central goal of the film.