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Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007)
A huge improvement over Noah Baumbach's breakthrough The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding has proven itself to be nothing if not divisive for audiences. Completely willing to alienate its audience through prolonged exposure to its unlikable, but human, cast of characters, the movie plows past its initially comic premise into Bergman territory with its honest and unflinching exploration of its characters' foibles. At one point, Margot (Nicole Kidman, perfectly cast), the titular author and sister, slaps her son, and the camera immediately cuts. Most of the edits in this tightly constructed serio-comedy have that kind of sting, though, which is precisely why reactions are so uncomfortably mixed.
Chronicling a few days during which two estranged sisters reunite for a wedding that one of them clearly doesnít approve of, the movie achieves a level of intimacy that's extremely rare in American cinema. Baumbach details his characters as acutely as his unflinchingly blunt heroine does, diagnosing and announcing their faults, no matter that such honesty quickly grows to be less than pleasant. Kidmanís conception of the ruthless Margot is doubly brave given her off-screen reputation for iciness. She reveals herself here as a fearless, versatile performer, willing to be thin-skinned and unpitying at the same time. She delivers just one of the superbly rendered performances here, though. The sharp, incisive screenplay gives the ensemble a group of flawed, thought-through characters, and the cast runs with the opportunity (with the exception of the distracting Jack Black).
More exciting, though, than the screenplay's accomplishment, is Baumbachís adept work as director. For the first time, it seems that he's conceived a film as a piece of cinema first and as a screenplay second. Every edit seems to have been thought through before filming began, though the movie still retains a feel of spontaneity. Throughout the film, startlingly poetic images show up on the screen, without ever negatively affecting the closely observed, dimly lit mood that dominates. Casual shots, such as one of a piece of lipstick-smeared toilet paper in the toilet, find visual metaphors for the anxieties that dominate this distinctive and razor-sharp work. A decidedly literary tone remains in the atmosphere throughout, but it somehow seems justified by cinematographer Harris Savidesí lensing, which seems to deliberately recall Ď70s American cinema. In many ways, Margot at the Wedding comes off like a found art object from that era. In this day and age, its stripped down incisiveness is nearly unfathomable.