Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale marked him as the reigning bard of disaffected 16-year-olds from privileged, culturally elite, miserably broken families. Not a big demographic, but the achingly precise details, the acid-etched dialogue, and a rueful canniness about the twists and minefields of intimate relationships made this unlikely, apparently autobiographical comedy one of the best films of 2005. Not so Margot at the Wedding. It offers its share of laughs and shrewd social observations, but the humor tends to curdle into bile. Mostly, like its characters, it lacks any compelling justification for its existence other than its own conceit and snarkiness. Maybe it’s time for this director to move on — and not just from Brooklyn to Southampton.
VIDEO: The trailer for Margot at the Wedding
In short, Baumbach is regressing, or at least his on-screen persona is. Unlike the spiky adolescent protagonist of Squid, Claude (Zane Pais) is barely pubescent (12? 13?) and a bit of a squid himself — creepily amorphous, his gender hard to figure. (One of my colleagues at the press screening was, by the end of the movie, still not sure.) The family unit has degenerated as well, far beyond the misery of the previous film, with the bonds of siblings, spouses, parents, and children hopelessly shattered, the causes generations deep. And the future? Let’s just say the film’s title should be taken with some irony.
Margot (a brittle Nicole Kidman), Claude’s mom, has irony to spare, not to mention condescension, self-righteousness, overly analyzed neuroses, and all-purpose bitchiness. Yes, she’s a celebrated confessional fiction writer with stories in the New Yorker. Notebook at the ready, she’s en route with Claude to the old family homestead on Long Island to attend the wedding of her hippie-ish sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, reminiscent of her character in Georgia, post-rehab).
Margot is not about to offer congratulations. She has only contempt for the groom, jobless pseudo-artist Malcolm — and since he’s a slob played by Jack Black, it’s hard to argue. But that’s just one in a blur of conflicts to come, and they all spring not from any central moral dilemma but from sheer snobbery. It isn’t just lumpen Malcolm who suffers from Margot’s jaundiced eye; the feral next-door neighbors, the Voglers, are on her shit list. They have the temerity to demand that Margot and Pauline cut down an ancient tree in their yard. (It’s diseased and is poisoning the Voglers’ property, or so mean old Mr. Vogler says.) Worse, they have the bad taste to roast a whole pig carcass in their backyard and chastise their children in public. And speaking of bad taste: we also have bestselling pulp writer Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds), such a vulgarian, but that doesn’t stop Margot from lusting after him and cheating on her bloodless, academic husband, Jim (John Turturro).
How does the all-seeing Claude react to this hypocrisy? He doesn’t, really. He remains distraught, androgynous, and unchanged, occasionally reporting to mom that he’s masturbated, or that someone has told him he smells. This lack of character development isn’t Margot’s only problem. The film has no anchoring metaphor (the diseased tree? Pauline’s pooped pants?) to match the battling leviathans of its predecessor. And though it works hard at black humor and perversity, it never approaches the depths of The Squid and the Whale.