Unfocused, uncomfortable, and uncontrollable are words that come to mind when describing Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. However, the things that keep this film from making very much sense (no distinct plot line, character arcs that land all over the map, wholly unexplained bits of personal histories) are exactly what raise it above so many films of a similar ilk (and there are many) to become something wonderfully brutal.
I’ll paraphrase what happens with as many cliches as I can fit. The film follows a despondent Nicole Kidman as Margot, an emotionally detached middle-aged somewhat-well-known Manhattanite author, who heads to the Hamptons to her sister’s wedding. Pauline, her sister, is more the didn’t-whiddle-their-depraved-childhood-into-gold I’ll-marry-any-guy-who-will-take-me-before-I’m-too-old type. These characters may be very close to Mr. Baumbach’s experience, but it’s clear he has seen Hannah and her Sisters many many times. Anyway, Pauline is marrying lazy-guy extraordinaire, Malcolm, played with incredible nuance by Jack Black.
The film meanders around in search of a plot, never quite finding a hook on which to hang the story. Instead, Margot plays like a series of heartbreaking scenes whose goal is to bring the emotional meat of each character to the surface. In this respect, Mr. Baumbach achieves something quite special. At points appalling, like when Margot and Pauline recount their sister’s rape by the horse trainer while giggling and cackling, each character’s personal history is outside of our realm of understanding. Attention is never paid to filling in the gaps or explaining away the most disturbing bits. However, our confusion as an audience makes some other scenes wholly enjoyable, such as the few times Margot finds herself crying. We never feel sorry for her, but rather that we get relief from the pain of witnessing how terrible she can become if she sees fit. Or, without spoiling anything, when Mr. Black, as the childish Malcolm, finds himself under attack on the beach. There is no question that he has gotten his comeuppance, but he is so broken, so psychologically ill-prepared to deal with adulthod, that we almost forgive him his transgressions.
I don’t believe that Mr. Baumbach is a very good storyteller, but that doesn’t make him a bad filmmaker. It is refreshing to see a film that is so explorative of human emotion without letting things like linearity and logic fumble up his direction. I’m sure that we will see even better films from him, but for now, I will take as many of these as he has to offer and lap them up.