Sunday, April 20, 2008
Margot at the Wedding -- Secrets and Gossip
Billed as a comedy, or comic drama, Margot at the Wedding is cruel and caustic. Its “comedy” is pointed savagely at family members. It’s like the family reunions we attend where old Uncle Ned or second-cousin Sally are sure to poke fun at us for the mistakes we made in our youth. Now, take that and multiply the pain a hundred-fold, and you have the comic basis Noah Baumbach’s depressing movie.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) takes Claude (a terrific debut role for Zain Pais), her androgynous son, to visit her estranged sister Pauline (Jeniffer Jason Leigh) who is going to marry Malcom (Jack Black) at the family home within a week. This sets up the film for Baumbach to explore family dysfunctionality. Or rather, for him to show scene after scene of vicious dialog. This is one family with infinite degrees of separation; this is a family you are glad to be rid of.
Margot and Pauline are foul-mouthed sisters who share a love-hate relationship. Although Pauline thinks Margot is her best friend, they haven’t really spoken in years. Both struggle to hold onto relationships, and this failure is rooted in their abusive childhood. Though we do not meet him, their father has hurt them and his shadow continues to darken their lives.
The simple marriage is set to occur in the garden in the shade of a huge tree. The tree is a source of conflict for the neighbors, who want it cut down, since it is diseased and destroying their property. The tree is a clear symbol for Margot’s family. Although it appears strong and healthy, within it is diseased and is poisoning everything around; any relationship that comes close is damaged. We can predict what will happen to the tree, and hence to the family.
As Margot meets Malcolm, an unemployed musician/artist, she sees him as less than worthy for her sister. Malcolm, himself, says “For me, expectation just turns to disappointment, and so ultimately I'd rather not try." That is a self-defining statement. Black plays Malcolm as a whiny loser, yet he is the most lovable of all the characters. Indeed, Black demonstrates acting not seen from him before. And Baumbach pulls outstanding acting from Kidman, too, who shows a depth of emotion from a self-obsessed “winner” with borderline personality disorder.
At the heart of this story is the issue of secrets. Very early we realize this when, in a living room scene with the main characters present, Pauline shares, “Malcolm was fondled by a male babysitter.” What a bomb! Pouting, Malcolm retorts, “Just use that information however you want." It gets worse. Later, Pauline tells a secret to Margot in private. It is confidential. But Margot cannot keep it hidden and shares it with one person. That is one person too many, and it is not long before it is public knowledge. (With the lies that are being told, this could have been called Secrets and Lies, but that was a 1996 British movie, and "Secrets and Gossip" only works as a blog title.)
But Margot is a writer, and ceaselessly critical of all. She has made her fame by writing nakedly about family. She finds many ideas by writing her journal. But in using this, she damages those around her, who do not want their secrets revealed. She has already destroyed Pauline’s first marriage in this way. In fact, Margot is like a hurricane leaving a trail of damage and devastation in her wake, unawares. She believes she has it together, yet her marriage is failing, she has a cruel lover, Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), and she is drinking and popping pills. When Margot is interviewed by Dick at a local bookstore, he cruelly yet casually throws a nuclear bomb of a question at her that perhaps causes her to see herself honestly for the first time: she is the one who has abandoned her family. But she rejects this criticism.
Margot presents an insightful illustration of the proverb, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Prov. 11:13). When we are told a secret in confidence, it is our ethical duty to maintain that confidence. To do otherwise is to betray trust. Telling even one person, puts this confidence in peril. But it is so easy to let it slip, if we are not careful. Or perhaps it puts us in a position of power or prestige if we can somehow let another know what we know – to gossip about this. Whatever, or however, we might do it, sharing a secret hurts the other person and damages our character, too.
At the start we see Margot and Claude on a train to the Long Island coastline. At the end we see Margot and Claud on a bus back. Much has happened in between, but none of it positive. With the exception of Margot’s husband Jim (a brief role for John Turturro), who is gentle but weak, all these characters are sick and horrible, with multiple skeletons in their closets. Just like No Country for Old Men there is no redemption here.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM