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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Margot At The Wedding

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Jacqueline Monahan

Margot At The Wedding

Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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Love not only hurts, it rips, shreds, tears and devastates. But family doesn’t always mean love, just the people you’re stuck with from birth to death, in a blood relationship that sometimes draws blood.

The film explores the dynamics of two sisters, Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who reunite at the coastal family home after a years-long estrangement, for Pauline’s impending wedding to unemployed artist Malcolm (Jack Black). Both damaged from unnamed childhood trauma (sexual abuse is hinted at, never verified) the pretense of politeness quickly fades into recriminations, resentment, and loaded, cynical conversations.

With wounds still raw and barely scabbed over, the sisters begin to pick at old sore spots. Dad’s dead, but spoken about in hushed, vitriolic terms. Mom and another sister, Becky, are living together in a co-dependent cocoon of blame and denial, loyalty and betrayal.

Each sister has an androgynous child. Claude (Zane Pais) and Ingrid (Flora Cross) are silent observers, aware of the drama but knowing nothing else to compare it to, try to live out a relatively normal existence despite their neurotic moms.

Margot writes for the New Yorker and is a reasonably well-known fiction author. Pauline is a teacher. Both are smart women stifled by a shared childhood of family dysfunction. Neither trusts the other with her secrets and all motives are suspect. Touchy conversations abound like minefields.

Pauline dares Margot to climb a tree, one whose roots are interfering with a neighbor’s garden (another tense subplot). Fearlessly climbing up, but afraid of descending, Margot needs literal rescuing. Like her harsh, sometimes cruel words, she cannot extricate herself from the situations she creates. A bug invades her ear, a source of continual annoyance, like knowledge she doesn’t want but pursues nonetheless. Margot must accept being thought of as a perpetual troublemaker, not to be trusted with secrets.

Pauline has absorbed all of the hurt, and is less caustic but more wary than Margot. She wants approval for her decisions, but is sure she won’t get it. Pauline seeks comfort in New Age remedies and medication, while Margot opts for therapy, enhanced covertly by Pauline’s medication. The two talk about sex, past relationships and growing older and invisible. Pauline shares a secret. She should have known better.

Malcolm is insecure as well. Not the intellectual or social equal of the two women, he worsens the impression he makes by being vulgar and inappropriate in daily conversation. He’s weak and can’t be forgiven for it, not in this family. Of course, Margot disapproves of Malcolm and is not afraid to let Pauline know.


Married Margot has an old suitor in the vicinity, Dick Koozman (Ciaran Hinds) who features her at a bookstore “Conversation with…” only to humiliate her with probing questions in front of an audience. Dick has a teenage horndog of a daughter, Maisy, (Halley Feiffer) who immediately sets her sights on Claude in her capacity as babysitter for him and Ingrid.

A short visit from husband Jim (John Turturro) shows him to be a straightforward writer who does not at all perceive his wife’s complexity or desire to leave him. Their relationship is only hinted at, but seems to be one of uncomfortable intimacy without insight of any kind.

Margot digs through Pauline’s possessions, ignoring boundaries, and pocketing pills. Hurt and love roll off of her tongue effortlessly and her sister and son feel its devastating, confusing effects. Spying on contentious neighbors she witnesses a butchered pig being dressed. From Margot’ view outside, the sight is almost obscene. To the viewer, it is a visceral reminder of exposure and rawness. Hand held camera shots give off a rawness of their own.

In one scene the sisters seemingly laugh over a semi-joke about Becky’s sexual abuse. You don’t know if they are serious about the event, or sardonic about the sister. Dark memories loom everywhere but the story stays in the present, evolving and unfolding as events take inevitable turns. There’s a confession, a confrontation, another betrayal and an uprooting on several levels.

Writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) maneuvers through sensitive and festering family dynamics with an unsentimental and jack-hammer-like forcefulness. Characters are fully developed and each understands both their assigned family role and the part their past has played in shaping them.

Nicole Kidman transcends Margot’s psyche in a virtuoso performance, pulling off the miracle of making a self-centered, egotistical curmudgeon more than a little sympathetic. Jennifer Jason Leigh (also Baumbach’s wife) does not shy away from ugliness, whether it’s looking drab and hopeless, or soiling herself in the woods (yes, that way). These two actresses have nailed the dysfunction, bitterness and resentment necessary to portray complex and conflicting emotions without unnecessary hysterics or forced manners.

Jack Black provides a sad type of comic relief. Malcolm does not spend a lot of time thinking, when that’s all that everyone around him does. Like a court jester, he’s tolerated – barely. Growing a mustache because it’s funny only makes it so when he shaves it off, a small change in the midst of an environment where the players are more than a little set in their ways.

John Turturro’s short scenes reveal Jim to be one of the few characters operating with integrity. It will not be enough for Margot, we suspect.

Zane Pais and Flora Cross remind us that there is collateral damage in any family, and that they might very well carry the dysfunctional flag into the next generation. Claude loves, fears and hates his mother all at once, but never wants to leave her side. Ingrid accepts it all stoically.

Margot at the Wedding is a dark, honest look at family interaction that will make you thankful not to be in that particular gene pool.