Watching Margot at the Wedding is like reading a novella that Harper’s Magazine would publish or that might land in the Best American Short Stories’ yearly anthology, which is another way of saying that watching Margot at the Wedding is a good way to remind yourself that all relationships suck, human beings suck, and the whole wide world sucks, too. Then again, you can say the same thing about director Noah Baumbach’s last movie, The Squid and the Whale.
The similarities between the two movies are striking, but none more so than the unhealthy relationship between children and smothering, mentally manipulative parents who tend to project their own depression onto them. Margot (Nicole Kidman) has returned to her childhood home with her possibly autistic son, Claude (Zane Pais), for the marriage of her estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to a directionless artist named Malcolm (Jack Black). She returns not so much to be there for her sister, but instead to be closer to a fellow author, Dick (Ciarán Hinds), who she’d like to be screwing instead of the husband she’s in the process of leaving. Pauline knows her sister all too well, but can’t act, as the snide author picks her and Malcolm’s lives apart while trying to sabotage their relationship by revealing a secret Pauline confided in her to Claude, who in turn reveals it to Pauline’s daughter – that Pauline is, in fact, pregnant. Malcolm did not even know this, so that should give you some perspective on how truly evil Margot is.
This tends to be the problem with adapting most critically acclaimed author’s short stories – at least those from the contemporary set – to the big screen. Reprehensible behavior in complex characters might be bearable and enlightening in short 10 to 15 page bursts – hell, maybe even up to 30 pages – but sitting through an hour and a half, or two hours worth of human folly and failure only to reach an inward, unexpressed epiphany is decidedly less satisfying.
Kidman’s Margot, while intricately drawn and brilliantly performed, is the type of inhuman monster authors like to try to humanize, but that doesn’t make me want to give her so much of my time at the cineplex. Her epiphany in the final moments of the movie, as relevant as it is to hers and Baumbach’s story – which, just to make clear, is an original screen story with stylistic ties to the short story – remains elusive and ill-defined to the rest of us, which in turns leaves audiences unsure what to take away from the movie. A change has taken place, but it’s so nebulous that you can’t help but wonder if it was all worth it.
This is not to say that Margot at the Wedding isn’t worth checking out; it’s a wonderful piece of intelligent filmmaking with a screenplay sure to earn Baumbach another Oscar nod and, if the stars align, Kidman and Leigh, too. Kidman, in fact, delivers one of her finest performances ever only marred by an extended masturbation sequence that, as you watch her hips writhe, you know she did to impress Academy voters (and, um, me). The problem is solely derived from the satisfaction one can draw from a short story on film. It’s plenty worth plowing through it like any, say, Richard Ford work, but you won’t want to try re-reading it, or re-watching it, for a long, long time.