If fictional accounts of literary lives are to be believed, the pursuit of stories and greater academic discoveries is an existence cancerous with disdain. Life can't just happen, every event must have meaning, contributing to a larger metaphor. The story of your life is grist for the story on the page, and not only can people not trust you to refrain from twisting what happened to them into some greater fiction, but if they are in the same profession as you, they might also twist yours. If they are not writers themselves, then the writer runs the risk of the people around them twisting their intent, or even seeing images of themselves in the creations even when the images aren't really there.
As a novelist, I can't entirely dispute this. Part of what made the caustic Margot at the Wedding so painful to watch the first time (my original review, which got plenty wrong) was the fear that maybe the damage being done was damage I would encounter all on my own. Don't get me wrong, I really liked the movie, but I wasn't going to immediately rush back and see it again.
At least not when I could wait for DVD.
Margot at the Wedding is the latest film from Noah Baumbach, co-writer of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the man behind The Squid and the Whale, both of which are also about literary lives (though Zissou hides behind the mask of adventure). In this one, Baumbach turns his lens on a pair of sisters. Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a Manhattan-based writer who is traveling to the coast with the eldest of her two boys, Claude (Zane Pais), to attend the wedding of her estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Margot had originally RSVP'd a "no" for the event, not wanting to support what she sees as a bad decision on Pauline's part. The younger sister has only known her fiancÚ, Malcolm (Jack Black), for a very short time, and Margot's sibling judgment is fierce.
The change of heart on Margot's part is not the act of kindness she outwardly portrays, but more selfish. She is running away from her failing marriage, hiding out in a familiar place to avoid the reality of her situation. Pauline lives in the house they grew up in, and just so happens to be near Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), another writer that Margot has been having an affair with. (Has there ever been a more perfect douchebag name than Dick Koosman?) These and many other secrets begin to emerge as Margot reunites with her sister and starts stirring things up. There is an abusive father in the girls' past, as well as a third sister. Pauline is pregnant. The two younger sisters resent their elder sibling for using their lives in fictions. Malcolm resents everyone who does anything because he really does nothing. Much of this comes to light in strange ways, with Baumbach using the secret code of sisters as an effective tool for digging toward the emotional heart of a given scene.
It would have been easy for Noah Baumbach to sculpt a self-important drama of the erudite and academic (Pauline is a teacher, but that rarely comes up, because when Margot is around, everything is about Margot), but he avoids the preciousness and self-defensiveness that often arises when intellectuals write about their own kind. Not only did I find Margot at the Wedding funnier (though still in a mean way) the second time around, I appreciated more how Baumbach was willing to hang back and let his actors have the space to move and live and be. Shooting with mostly natural lighting, eschewing a traditional musical score, and using handheld cameras to get in close and move on his feet, the director sets up the locale and lets the drama unfold without forcing it to fit strict literary lines. He does toy with metaphor, most obviously the central family tree that stands tall in the backyard and that outsiders say is rotting, but he doesn't spend a lot of time pushing any greater meaning on his audience than what they might decide to pick up on their own.
Likewise, when the situation overloads and events hit critical mass, it sneaks up on the viewer rather than feeling inevitable--even though it is inevitable, because everything that goes wrong has been pushed into position by Margot's meddling. Nicole Kidman is fearless as the extremely unlikable lead character, who seems capable of diagnosing everyone's problems but her own. It's a bit of an overstatement to call her the lead, though; it's just that her character's name is in the title. It's really an ensemble piece. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a quiet treasure that doesn't get put to use nearly enough anymore, and Jack Black has never been this good. He plays the same kind of emotionally stunted know-it-all that garnered so much notice in High Fidelity, but after life has kicked him a few times. The smug irony has been bled right out of the performance.
Everything in Margot at the Wedding is done smartly, right up to the ending. Be warned, the final sequence comes quick, but back it up and watch closely. The snap decision is all in the action, in the simple business of leaving everything behind and moving forward. Also consider the last scene in relation to the first, the thing that Claude mistakenly thinks he found on the train is now there with him on the bus. Though it happens abruptly, it's vitally important.
Subtitle options include English, Spanish, and French.
The single bonus program is a conversation between Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It's thirteen minutes mixed with some clips and is a deeper discussion than you get in your standard promotional interviews, possibly because the pair knows each other so well, having been married since 2005. They talk about the work process for both the actors and for the writer/director who was guiding them.