Complex Motivations

Unlikable people talk a lot in this character-driven film you'll love or hate

In The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach created an accessible and on-target attack on the self-involvement of the tiny, incestuous crowd who believe that they make Important Literature. In Margot at the Wedding, his follow-up, he's even more incisive, gaining a deep sense of the motivations and behaviors of those who think too much.

However, he's also created a film that you'll probably either love or hate. The characters may seem like caricatures to those who've never been subjected to the type, and even if you know these people, Baumbach is not interested in excusing them, only displaying them. Thus, most people will find Margot at the Wedding--which is far less broad in its comedy and far more microscopic in its view of the self-consciously neurotic than The Squid and the Whale--somewhat unpleasant and hard to sit through.

But what makes it unpleasant is, in part, what makes the characters so interesting: It's not just that they're horrid and manipulative and jealous; it's that they know that they're horrid and manipulative and jealous, yet they keep acting that way. Their self-awareness makes them both more off-putting and more engaging, and the result for the audience is either a deep reward or a ringing annoyance.

The film borrows from Ingmar Bergman's "chamber dramas" of the 1960s by placing a small group of people in close quarters, on an island, for a weekend, where they work out their long-standing resentments. But Baumbach isn't working with Bergman's existential Swedes; instead, these are Americans who speak the languages of psychotherapy, privilege and the cult of fame.

Nicole Kidman plays Margot, and she's surprisingly good in the role. A writer who garners critical rather than commercial success, she's traveling to her sister's wedding with her pubescent son. The mother/child relationship is engagingly horrific: She'll stroke his hair and then tell him that he used to be more physically attractive. He reports to her that he's masturbated in the bathroom. She runs, hysterically crying, after him when he gets on a bus.

Her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an English professor who envies Margot's success. She's marrying a man whom she knows Margot will find repulsive (Jack Black, well cast at last!), and she tries to make up for her lowered status by playing the part of the free spirit.

While Pauline envies Margot, Margot resents the fact that Pauline inherited their childhood home, hates Pauline for marrying beneath her, and steals Pauline's psychoactive medications. Their family dynamic resembles a congressional hearing: It's an interrogation in which both sides are guilty, and everyone's trying to look good for the camera.

While the sisters swap betrayals, and trade secrets about affairs and pregnancies, and hurl allegations of pedophilia, a meaningless argument with the Voglers (a name that appears frequently in Bergman's films)--Pauline's blue-collar neighbors--escalates to petty violence and tree-murder.

It seems like much is being hidden, and the real story doesn't occur during the time presented in the film. Instead, it occurs well before it, and is slowly revealed to the audience in outbursts, asides and betrayals of confidence. This allows Baumbach to enrich his characters, so that the real sense of who anyone is constantly shifts, not in a way that simply contradicts who they seemed to be, but rather in a way that explains their actions from a different perspective. When we see Margot speaking with what appears to be concern for her sister's well-being, it later becomes apparent that what she was doing was simply being critical in an effort to appear superior. And when Pauline appears at first mysteriously defensive and manic, it later becomes obvious that she's responding to a disagreement that was broken off months or years earlier when the sisters last spoke.

This produces rich characters whose every action is suspect since their motivations are so complex. Everything they say is calculated and recalculated in light of so many variables that each emotion and idea seems to swirl into a horrifying pit of past resentments and future fears.

On almost every technical measure, the film is well-made: The acting is stunning; the script is sharply funny and viscerally unpleasant; and the pacing, in spite of the fact that the film is all talking, is nonetheless quick.

The cinematography, too, is part of the story. Harris Savides, who's one of the best two or three living cinematographers, shoots most of the film with an intimate handheld, creating the feeling that you're one of the members of the dysfunctional family, and your head is stuck in a chair that's about to be sat upon by your entire screwed-up childhood.

So Margot at the Wedding is clearly a film for those who like the horrifying side of the human psyche, who don't mind characters that are inherently unlikable, and who can find 90 minutes of nonstop talking not only bearable, but riveting.