Margot at the Wedding is a film torpedoed by its own self-indulgence. The film starts by offering us a thin premise -- a frosty, New England writer named Margot comes to town for the occasion of her quasi-bohemian sister Pauline's wedding to a slob -- and then more or less does nothing in the way of development, opting instead for ninety minutes of hints and innuendo. Nothing in this family dysfunction drama ever rises to the surface, even in the third act. Usually, you at least know what the director was going for, whether they succeeded or failed, but not here. Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh have to be given some amount of credit for doing the requisite character-building work, playing past the obvious physical dissimilarities between them and creating a workable, sisterly dynamic that can go from warm to freezing in an instant, but there's so little in the way of compelling events for them to react to that it's almost hard to maintain interest. Margot at the Wedding is a ninety minute film, with about twenty minutes worth of content.

Jack Black is the third lead as Malcolm, Pauline's soon-to-be-husband who has no job and no ambition to do anything except possibly commit infidelity. It's hard to say whether Noah Baumbach hired Black to play a thinly-disguised version of himself or whether he intended to have him do heavy lifting, acting-wise, because there's an odd mixture of both on display. There are moments when he's simply playing his part with none of his usual verbal or physical affectations, and there are other moments, such as in a late scene where he's supposed to be doing some crying, when he's unwisely allowed to lapse into a light version of Jack Black schtick. Both incarnations of his character seem to be a noticeably bad match for Jennifer Jason Leigh, by the way. Her natural gravitas doesn't mesh well with his absurdist persona, and whenever they are together on screen, there's a palpable sense of 'acting' going on that undermines Jason Leigh's seemingly honest attempts at character development. Theirs is just one of several of the film's actor pairings that don't seem very natural.

As Margot, Kidman embodies a woman who is intended to appear closer to 40 than to 30, which is something new for her and hopefully a welcome sign of her willingness to choose more mature roles going forward, as opposed to silly comedies such as Bewitched, in which someone like Jessica Alba could just as easily star. Margot has a distant husband, played briefly by John Turturro, as well as a lover on the side, played by Ciaran Hinds, and of course the film sets up events so that she can have brief interactions with each during the running time, but their conversations are so immaterial to the plot (if there is one) and inside baseball that we in the audience must sit there bleary-eyed as they quarrel. It's almost like meeting two bickering strangers on the street -- you just want to back away slowly and go about your business. To add to the unpleasantness, there are a bunch of kids running around, watching and learning from the screwed-up adults -- foremost among them is Claude (Zane Pais) Margot's son of about twelve.

I've heard from a few people who appreciated Margot that they believe it has shadings of Bergman, but I just don't see it. I would believe that it aspires to have shadings of Bergman or perhaps Woody Allen -- it tries to make dramatic hay out of the old canard of people getting offended by the writer in their life swiping their past experiences for work, which is something that's been toyed with before, more successfully. I've also heard the film's "originality" praised once or twice, but does forgetting to add in the plot really count as originality? And I won't comment on the ending, except to say that I wasn't amused, and if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. I'm willing to concede that there may be depths to the story that I just don't see, but if they were too deeply submerged for me to make out then I suspect the majority reaction will be similar. Nicole Kidman's annus horribilis is almost over, but there's still The Golden Compass to get through. Here's hoping she makes her choices in 2008 a little more carefully.


A public TIFF screening of Margot at the Wedding will be held Thursday, September 13 at 12:00pm.