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Frat Pack Tribute Movie Review: Margot at the Wedding

Synopsis

Margot and her son Claude decide to visit her sister Pauline after she announces that she is getting married to less-than-impressive Malcolm. In short order, the storm the sisters create leaves behind a a mess of thrashed relationships and exposed family secrets.

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Review - Margot at the Wedding

By Mario Bernengo
From The 45th New York Film Festival

Much like with The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach's 2005 breakthrough film which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, it's not easy to tell you in two lines what Margot at the Wedding is about. Sure, you could argue the former was about a divorce, but it wasn't, not really. It was about these two very specific characters and their two very specific kids. They happened to be going through a divorce, but there was nothing typical about the divorce theme. And there sure isn't a typical wedding theme in Margot at the Wedding – there is barely a wedding in it, for crying out loud.

Noah Baumbach's movies are about characters. What happens to them (plots and themes, divorces and weddings) is less relevant than what happens with them. It's as if you get a window into these people's lives: you observe them, see what the dynamics are between family members, couples, lovers, and how their moods and attitudes shift towards one another. And then, when you've observed them for a while, the window closes and the movie is over. Kind of. That was the case with The Squid and the Whale, and even more so with Margot at the Wedding.

Not to say there is no story or structure, because there is: Margot (Nicole Kidman), a writer with an unforgiving, venomous tongue, takes her son Claude (Zane Pais) on a train, away from New York – and, as it turns out, from her writer husband, Claude's good-natured father, Jim (John Turturro) – up to the East Coast seaside for the wedding of Margot's sister, Pauline, a "searcher" (for lack of a better word) who is living in their parents' old house with her soon-to-be husband, Malcolm (Jack Black), a "letter-writer" (the quotation marks aren't for lack of a better word; it's what he does). The sisters haven't spoken in a long time, and it's very clear Margot doesn't approve of the whole thing, even before she arrives. And once she gets there, Malcolm's less-than-impressive physique and general ambitions in life (again, letter-writing) aren't about to get her onboard. Old spite crawls up to the surface. Lurking everywhere you have insecurity, back-stabbing, lying and cheating. And, as if the family troubles weren't enough, sketchy neighbors who want to cut down the sisters' special family tree are scaring the living shit out of everybody, including the audience. Hilarity ensues.

Jack Black's Role

No, really, it's a funny movie, it's just that "funny" is but one of the many hundreds of adjectives you'd need to describe it. I'm sure you will find most of them – adjectives like "charming", "moving", "complex", "strong", "vibrant", "gruesomely witty" or the all-time fave, "gut-wrenching" – in every other review you'll read. But we are all about the funny here at The Frat Pack Tribute, and it comes as no surprise to us that the person bringing it in this one is the Pack's own Jack Black, in a subdued portrayal of a maybe-not-so-loveable loser. For those of you dreading an all too "Jack Black-y" performance where it doesn't belong, fear not.

This is not Jack Black being Jack Black, this is Jack Black being an actor, doing what actors do. Jack Black is Malcolm, the letter-writer. And for those of you who are thinking Jack Black can't be funny just because it's a "serious" portrayal in a "serious" movie, think again. He is as hilarious as he's ever been – I'd miss part of the dialogue because the press people were laughing so hard – without ever missing a beat of the dramatic notes, keeping up with "drama queens" of the caliber of Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

In fact, Jack is so good in this, there's even been Oscar buzz surrounding his performance. So, will he get a nom? It's hard to say. He has a couple of fits here and there, but not of the Oscar bait kind, in my opinion. Jack manages to sell the humanity of the character admirably, but the problem with his part, as far as awards go, is that it is "morally ambiguous" and kind of weak and wretched. For reasons I won't go into, because you want to find out for yourself, the role of Malcolm could have been completely unsympathetic in the hands of another actor. Essentially, it's an underdog who doesn't come out on top, and that usually doesn't go over well with certain academies. Jack is brilliant, nonetheless.

As are all the other cast members. The performances are astonishing all around, but I think the awards, if the film gets any, will go to script and direction, and even more likely, to cinematography, costume, and production design. The look of the film is fantastic, with a gritty, 70s kind of feel to it. The handheld camera – not shaky, mind you – and the very natural lighting, when paired with the ultra-realistic performances, bring to mind the past decade's Danish films of the Dogma wave, heralded by superstar director Lars von Trier, who incidentally managed to get superstar Nicole Kidman for his Dogville. But more than a superstar, Kidman is a brave actress who is willing to go the distance in order to stay true to the character and the story. And in this case, going the distance requires, among other things, a quite compromising masturbation scene.

The film at large is actually all about the different characters', including the pubescent kids', relationship with their own sexuality, and it goes to some pretty weird, yet painfully truthful, places at times. All the major plot points revolve around the adult characters' difficulty to deal with, and express, their sexuality, of which they are all victims, and the children, in turn, become the victims of their parents' shortcomings. It's not a very pretty picture. The ugly sisterhood rivalry between Margot and Pauline is like a poison well they can't help but drink from, because that well is your family, and there is no escape from it. And that poison spreads, like the rotting roots of their special family tree, to all the other relationships they've ever forged. It provides quite the poignant imagery, that tree.

Conclusion

This is not traditional Frat Pack fare, that's for sure, but definitely worth checking out, on DVD if not in theaters, and not just for Jack Black. Like with The Squid and the Whale, the ending might be seen as abrupt and unsatisfying by some, but the extremely well-written, organic dialogue – no improv, not even from Jack – and fascinating characters, along with the amazing photography of Margot at the Wedding, go a long, long way.

****

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