Margot at the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding (2007)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black
Extras: Featurette, Trailers

In the years since her great box office success in "Moulin Rouge!" and "The Others, " Nicole Kidman has seen a steady decline in mainstream popularity as she has opted for smaller films, such as "Dogville" and "Birth," over major Hollywood releases. She has won critical acclaim for these performances, but the movies rarely see major theatrical distribution beyond film festivals and select theatres. "Margot at the Wedding" seems to be yet another notch in Kidman's line of little films that go virtually unnoticed by the general public. Though she was heavily promoted during this past awards season, either the film failed to impress voters enough to take notice or not enough people saw it to even consider her as her name has been absent from most of the ballots. Convincing arguments could be made either way.

Kidman takes the lead as Margot, a New York writer who travels back to her childhood home to attend the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), with whom she hasn't spoken in years. With Margot is Claude (Zane Pais), her sheltered son who is at the threshold of budding sexuality. Pauline is marrying Malcolm (Jack Black), a shiftless musician whom Margot immediately disapproves of. The relationship between Margot and Pauline is clearly one of unspoken animosity, something that Pauline desperately tries to cover up with outward optimism. She refers to Margot as her best friend, but much of their interaction plays more like competition, as each one tries to outdo the other in discovering buried secrets.

As the wedding draws closer, Margot's hidden insecurities begin to surface more and more. She becomes more vocal about her strained relationship with her husband (John Turturro), who arrives for a short visit. Her attempt to hide an affair with another local writer (Ciarán Hinds) falls apart, and Pauline starts to suspect that Margot is only using the wedding as an alibi to be near him. In spite of (or perhaps because of) her own personal issues, Margot turns things around on Pauline, effectively raising suspicions about Malcolm's faithfulness. With Margot's disruption, Malcolm's alleged philandering, and a pair of hateful neighbors to boot, Pauline's wedding becomes the source of more friction than happiness.

"Margot at the Wedding" is very free in its plot structure, allowing the story to develop quite unpredictably. Because of this, it becomes a strong showcase for the actors. Nicole Kidman's dedication to her craft is clearly in evidence here, and she has once again chosen material that is more about challenge than marketability. As Margot, she is the antithesis of her Hollywood persona. She is drab, antagonistic, disillusioned, and empty. Jennifer Jason Leigh is likewise unpleasant, but filled with an overwhelming sense of neediness. These two actresses are in top form, disappearing into their characters and making them whole. From their first moments together, they suggest a history beyond the boundaries of the film itself, and we see them as real people. Somewhat lost in the mix is Jack Black, resorting to shtick when called to be natural and unconvincing when called to be emotional.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach's script is certainly honest in its depiction of dysfunctional family relationships. There is hardly a false note to be found. Yet, I found the movie extraordinarily painful to sit through. While I can acknowledge the brilliance of Kidman and Leigh, their characters are so extremely off-putting that it negates the compelling nature of their performances. Falling somewhere between drama and comedy, the film wallows so relentlessly in its characters' misery that the humor comes across as cold and bitter. If we do laugh, it is not out of joy, but rather out of discomfort, for make no mistake, "Margot at the Wedding" is a joyless film. As Margot and Pauline square off against each other, it is impossible to root for one or the other as they are both too blinded by their own self-pity to realize how much of their suffering they bring upon themselves.

What makes this film so difficult to watch is exactly the bitter honesty and realism with which the situations are presented. Where most black comedies exaggerate their situations to some degree to create a level of distance between the viewer and the characters, Baumbach's film gives us no separation. We are immersed in the tragedy of these characters' lives, and rather than being able to sit back and chuckle at their dysfunctional existence, we are instead presented with an uncomfortable level of intimacy with characters who are thoroughly unlikeable. Baumbach seems to think he is making astute observations about familial interaction, but instead he has only heightened the sense of isolation. This is a film in which people deceive, abuse, scream at, and abandon one another, but in the end neither they nor the audience have gained greater insight into their world or the world outside of the film.

Paramount has presented the film in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. The film utilizes natural lighting extensively, and as a result, black levels are not very strong. They are generally a muddy brownish color. There is not a lot going on visually in this movie, as much of the action takes place indoors where there is not much light. In general, the film has a rather dull appearance, and the transfer on this DVD seems to render that accurately. The look of the film compliments its tone and story, but don't expect great visual beauty from this. This film was just not made to be eye candy.

The audio comes to us in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that sounds fine, but it will certainly not give your system a workout. "Margot at the Wedding" is heavy on dialogue, though there are moments when ambient sounds, such as the sounds of insects, are given significant emphasis, and the track reproduces the effects well. Voices are clear and smooth. A 5.1 Spanish track is also available, as well as subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements are sparse, save for a 13-minute featurette and two trailers. The featurette is matter-of-factly titled "A Conversation with Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh" and features insight from the real-life married couple on the making of the film. The bulk of their discussion concerns the story, their views of the characters, and the acting. Pretty slim pickings here as far as supplemental features go.

In spite of his honest approach, Noah Baumbach fails to discuss with any complexity the rivalry and friction between his characters. "Margot at the Wedding" is, for all intents and purposes, a well-made film, but after submerging the viewer in a hotbed of emotional insecurity and self-loathing for an hour and a half, it offers no real hope or movement beyond what it started out as. Like the main characters, the film has the intellect to recognize familial problems but does not have the heart to do anything about them. I am certainly not asking for a Hollywood ending, but at the very least there should be a point to an emphasis on so much misery, and I have yet to find one here. It is refreshing to see a star like Nicole Kidman continue to push herself as an actress and explore her darker personality, but the end result is not worthy of her talent.