Margot at the Wedding (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's always the case that when a director does something that attracts notice (or, in some cases, notoriety), his or her next project is awaited with a degree of anticipation. This is the case with Noah Baumbach, whose The Squid and the Whale, while not making a big box office splash, opened eyes around the art-house circuit. The Squid and the Whale wasn't Baumbach's first feature - he has been making movies since he debuted in 1995 with Kicking and Screaming - but it achieved him a level of credibility that none of his previous features had managed. Unfortunately, Baumbach's follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, the pretentious and talky Margot at the Wedding, is more likely to contract than expand his appeal.

The best terse way to describe Margot at the Wedding is to consider it an English-language homage to the works of the great French director Eric Rohmer. Not only does Baumbach (who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing) borrow heavily from Rohmer's approach of employing heavy, dense passages of dialogue, but even the title echoes films like Pauline at the Beach, Chloe in the Afternoon, and Claire's Knee. Strangely, this has been a big year for Rohmer. He has a new film out (Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon) and Chloe was remade by Chris Rock as I Think I Love My Wife.

Accompanied by her adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), Margot (Nicole Kidman) has come home for the wedding of her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to Malcolm (Jack Black). The reunion between siblings is prickly and the tension grows with every passing moment. Margot is in the process of separating from her husband (John Turturro) and thinks Pauline is making a horrible decision by tying herself to a rootless individual. Malcolm has become distracted by the young babysitter Pauline employs to watch her daughter. And the next-door neighbors want Pauline to cut down an old tree near the property line - or else. Will the wedding go off without a hitch? Will Pauline and Margot allow old wounds to heal or will they pick at the scabs? And will the tree survive the movie?

The problem with Margot at the Wedding is that these questions are all that matter. There isn't a whole lot else, and they aren't very interesting questions. In and of itself, some of the dialogue is enjoyable but it's sound and fury signifying nothing. With Rohmer's films, there was always a universal truth at the heart of his characters' interactions and dilemmas. The conversations aren't just enjoyable; they offer sustenance. Here, there's nothing more than a bunch of self-centered, neurotic people bitching and whining. It grows tiresome after a while. Jack Black's presence doesn't help. Here's an actor who can be brilliant in supporting, comedic roles. Give him something meatier and serious and his hamminess sinks any chance of his being taken seriously. Margot at the Wedding still would have been uncomfortable to absorb without him but, by adding him into the mix, Baumbach has made this a bitter pill to swallow.

Ultimately, the film will find an audience, but it's hard to imagine movie-goers reacting enthusiastically to Margot at the Wedding. While there are a lot of similarities between Rohmer's body of work and Baumbach's latest, the most crucial aspect linking the films is a difference: Rohmer's love of conversation and languorous pace engages the intellect; Baumbach provides a good alternative to an over-the-counter sleep aid.

Margot at the Wedding (United States, 2007)

Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Zane Pais, Ciaran Hinds, John Turturro
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Cinematography: Harris Savides
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1