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At the Movies: Calgon Take Me Away: Margot at the Wedding *1/2

While I admire Noah Baumbach’s challenging material with Margot at the Wedding, I don’t feel I should have had to sit through it. Is there a reason I should have been punished for investing two hours of my life watching Kidman, as Margot, berate everyone around her, including her only son? I think when you ask audience members to spend that amount of time watching your film there should be something more in it for them than sadistic torture.

In the film, Margot, a pretentious, stick-up-her-butt writer, goes to visit her much nicer sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on the weekend of Pauline’s wedding. She is marrying Malcolm (Jack Black) because they both seem to get along okay and appear to be in love and are fairly easy-going. Margot, of course, has arrived to start telling everyone their business. This kid ought to get tested for autism, that guy is going to be unfaithful, girls only have one thing on their minds – and those are probably the nicer things she says. She reserves her most hateful and judgmental phrases for her own son Claude (Zane Pais), whom she alternately suffocates and berates, coddles and rejects like a lover. It is truly sickening.

Among other awful plot elements, Kidman’s Margot pleasures herself, climbs a tree, has an affair, crashes a car, breaks up a relationship. She’s an awful person in every respect; her redeemable traits flicker into focus and then die out again. In fact, if there’s one good reason to suffer through this film, it’s to get a clear picture of the person you may never want to be.

Films about horrible women who are outed by the film’s author can be quite a revelation for some of us women who have trouble seeing past our own self-obsession. Woody Allen’s Another Woman is a great example of this. The problem with this woman in this film is that she never quite feels real, but seems more like a walking dream vomited out of Baumbach’s subconscious. Maybe he woke up from the dream and the feelings of this person still lingered. Either way, it all feels very specific to someone and nowhere near universal enough to justify any time spent on it.

Baumbach, who achieved success with last year’s The Squid and the Whale, has written something he claims is not autobiographical and whose character Margot also claims, in the film, that her writing is not autobiographical, but everyone knows it is. He jump cuts through emotional scenes, never lingering on any moment so that the audience can let what’s going on sink in.

If there are bright spots, it’s that occasionally the film feels like something a French filmmaker might have made, something where passions linger and phobias are on their way to being made, but since there is no language barrier the whole thing feels too literate and deliberately obtuse.

There is something to be said for an artist who trusts his own instincts enough to write and direct something this abrasive and uncompromising, but I’m not sure I get the point of it. There are probably people who will find it refreshing because it is so unlike anything else playing in theaters right now. And for someone looking for something new and strange, this is right up your street. To me, it was like experimental theater of the ’60s only without the cute outfits.

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