The watch pot bubbles with resentment and verbal cruelty.

Margot at the Wedding

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            A word about the experience of watching “Margot at the Wedding.” When good actors build real characters over the course of any movie, we appreciate both their efforts and their success. But when the effect of the whole is to make us say, “My God, why did I see that one,” the decision of whether or not to go looms large. Do I want to subject myself to this? Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) chose his actors beautifully for “Margot”, but he has written and directed a story that makes us squirm in our seats.

            Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh create two fully imagined sisters here; they also build a family that would make most of us want to stay single. These are two sisters who have been estranged for years, with good reason. They can’t be together for minutes without hurting each other. The younger one, (Pauline) is getting married – yet again. The groom is Malcolm (Jack Black), an oafish loser with a short fuse and vulnerable tear ducts. Everything goes wrong for Malcolm as he slides toward marriage with the aging ex-hippie Pauline. In this family pool of narcissists struggling vainly to reach from the past to the present of their lives, no one can win.

            Older sister Margot, a writer, has arrived for the wedding wrapped in the benevolent pretense of reconciliation. Her real motivation is a nearby book signing with a former lover. So the poor hippie bride discovers that her sister is really the same old manipulator she always was.

            The early, often good laughs gradually become rooted in dismay at the various ways people find to wound each other with words. At one point someone remarks that Margot has “borderline personality disorder” as an explanation for her quick time switches in mood and her conviction that she has a right to be cruel in the name of being direct. Her every comment carries a hidden dagger. Nicole Kidman plays with all this not with facial expressions, which remain rather blank but with sudden and visible mood shifts that cut to the hearts of her family, including her son Claude (Zane Pais) who she loves even as she hurts him. The boy, just on the edge of puberty, is treated as an emotional adult by his narcissistic mother and has to grow up fast. He is learning manipulation at the feet of a master.

            Jennifer Jason Leigh is good as the somewhat flaky sister trying to build a family with her damaged sister. Nicole Kidman is outstanding as the woman who is supposed to respond with wisdom but manages only to destroy what glimmers of hope have surfaced for everyone else. The watch pot bubbles with resentment and verbal cruelty. If you decide to go, you will see acting that is good enough to make you miserable, and whether you want to endure that is, of course, your choice.

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