Jennifer Jason Leigh
The dysfunctional family it seems will forever provide American filmmakers with ample fodder and although it may be a well-trodden path, with directors such as Noah Baumbach of The Squid and the Whale fame (2005), it will continue to be a fertile and gratifying genre. In his latest familial offering, Margot at the Wedding, Baumbachs delicately written script and nuanced characters resuscitate the usual elements of a fractured family in a fresh and comic manner.
The film follows Margot (Nicole Kidman): an insufferably austere and hypercritical writer from Manhattan who decides to attend her estranged sisters wedding. Margots sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a new age type and, relatively speaking, the saner of the two, despite being all set to marry unemployed artist and general deadbeat Malcolm (Jack Black). Hes like the guys we rejected when we were 16, Margot says callously, before setting out to wreak havoc on their marriage. Her vicious tongue leaving a trail of emotional destruction in its wake.
In tow is son Claude (Zane Pais), a long-haired androgyne in the throes of puberty. Their relationship is particularly complex and Pais plays the fragile part adeptly. Margot frequently pushes him away with her venomous comments, before reeling him back him; a pattern that she replicates with both Pauline and ex-husband Jim (John Turturro), who has been banned from the wedding.
But the balance of power between Margot and Claude is not as clear cut: Claude is Margots confidante, and the frankness with which she confides in him transgresses all mother-child boundaries. In one scene she wakes him up, nonchalantly announcing her sisters pregnancy after having sworn herself to secrecy. This candidness, which Pauline shares, ensures that family dramas and recollections of childhood traumas are played out in front of their kids without any thought as to their effect.
Cruelly honest and manipulative though she may be, it is Margots brittle side, her tendency to break down as often as she is likely to stick the knife in that saves her from being a deplorable ice queen. While giving a talk at a bookshop she hits rock-bottom when old flame Dick (Ciarin Hinds) spitefully turns one of her short stories against her and the results are unexpectedly heartbreaking. Kidmans performance as Margot is flawless; stern features and pallid skin vividly portraying the writer in all her frostiness.
The films gravitas is thankfully punctuated by plenty of humour. Malcolm provides a much-needed comic foil to Margot and although Black retains elements of his usual shtick he undoubtedly gives the role the maturity it requires. There is nevertheless a limit to his sobriety and this is most apparent when he blubs to Pauline following the admission of a misdemeanour, at which point he disappointingly reverts to Jack Black as we know him.
The use of a hand-held camera lends the film sincerity: the usual freedom of movement this provides has been restrained and the camera only stirs when it needs to, putting the audience up close to the characters. The colours are muted and the soundtrack understated, eschewing the twee tunes and record-deals of films like Juno.
Although the film has several other themes the dead tree in the garden and the boorish neighbours these are unsuccessfully woven into the story. They are underdeveloped and as such come across as superfluous. But these flaws pretty much go unnoticed against the films fine main strand, woven with acerbic observations, wry humour and meticulous characterisation.