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Family Tree 

Imagine that you spend several hours working on a jigsaw puzzle only to discover that many pieces were missing, and, even more frustrating, that some of the pieces you were working with actually belonged to another puzzle. That about captures my reaction to writer/director Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding. The picture doesn't lack for insight about the human condition. And it has gripping passages. But no whole ever emerges from the sum of its parts. Margot at the Wedding is the story of the relationship between two adult sisters. Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a successful fiction writer who, by her own admission, is very well known to a small handful of people. Her husband Jim (John Turturro) is a less successful fiction writer. They are the parents of an androgynous 13-year-old boy named Claude (Zane Pais). Margot's sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the divorced mother of a 12-year-old daughter named Ingrid (Flora Cross). We don't know what Pauline does professionally. She lives in the house she and Margot grew up in on the New England coast. Margot and Pauline have not spoken for many years, though the film never reveals the occasion of their rift. Now Pauline has invited Margot to her second wedding. Pauline is pregnant and is marrying the father, Malcolm (Jack Black), an introspective and intermittently angry man who is apparently unemployed and destined to stay that way. Malcolm once pursued a music career. Now, ostensibly, he paints. But as Pauline tells us early on, mostly Malcolm writes letters to editors. In short, somebody inherited a whole bunch of money from somebody because nobody in this picture could conceivably hold a conventional job.

Given that they have been seriously estranged, I find it hard to believe that Margot and Pauline so quickly fall into the kind of physical intimacy we presume they must have had in girlhood. They finish each other's sentences and lounge about intertwined, touching each other with tender caresses, one's head in the other's lap. But quickly Margot decides that Pauline needs some tough psychological love and tells her sister she shouldn't marry Malcolm. Pauline responds with the kind of snarling comments that help us understand why the sisters were out of contact for so long: they detest each other.

Though I think most people are far less direct and communicate their hostilities in sullenness more often than rage, the scenes of the sisters in verbal combat ring true enough. People certainly feel about their relatives the things that these women say to each other. Moreover, Baumbach is certainly right that some people's selfishness is almost breathtaking. Margot, we suspect, has shown up at the wedding not for the sake of her sister but to facilitate a sexual liaison with still another writer, Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hands). The picture also appears appropriately concerned that the unresolved issues Margot and Pauline have with each other and with their unhealthy rearing may well be poisoning the emotional health of their children. Ingrid is a beautiful child, but she seems almost inert. Claude seems developmentally stunted. He still wants to sleep with his mother.

But at times we wonder if Baumbach didn't come to this project with inadequate material to flesh out an entire feature. The filmmaker thoroughly overworks a metaphor about the tree in the backyard. The tree presumably represents the family's roots. But it's close to patently ridiculous that Pauline could dare Margot into climbing the tree even if we get the point that Margot's ego demands she stand on the highest branch. The surly neighbors (who appear to have moved here from Deliverance) want the tree cut down for reasons that make not one lick of sense outside Symboland. And, of course, it's sad-sack Malcolm's lot to land the task of putting chainsaw to wood.

But the tree metaphor, with its discussion of whether its roots are diseased or healthy, is at least connected to the relationship story. Other scenes are not. We haven't a clue why Dick viciously decides to humiliate Margot at a public interview. We don't begin to know what to make of the Deliverance crew. Why are they butchering a pig in their bathtub? Why are they throwing refuse into Pauline's back yard? Why does their teenage son suddenly attack Claude? And then there's a climactic betrayal involving a character we've barely met. It's all very, very sloppy. A screenplay Oscar nominee for The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach is obviously loaded with talent. But somebody should have required a rewrite this time.

click to enlarge Margot (Nicole Kidman) wrecks havoc when she revives a - sibling rivalry at her sister's wedding. - 2007 PARAMOUNT VANTAGE
  • 2007 Paramount Vantage
  • Margot (Nicole Kidman) wrecks havoc when she revives a sibling rivalry at her sister's wedding.
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