Margot At The Wedding
Doesn't hit, quite, this one. I liked it, it held my interest, but Baumbach makes several choices that squandered some of the story's potential, not least the use of John Turturro.
Turturro is, I suspect, underrated as an actor, and that's probably because of how he looks, but think of all the different roles he's played that aren't Jesus in The Big Lebowski, that aren't goofy "what a character" characters, or players in the Coen Stable Of Weird. Herb Stempel; Billy Martin; Pino in Do The Right Thing. He's eminently able to get the laugh if it's required, but he can do a lot of other things well too, and sometimes his mere presence is enough to settle a movie down. His Joey Knish gives Rounders, which is somewhat by-numbers despite Damon's best efforts (or, more accurately, because of Malkovich's), more heft.
I don't think we're meant to expect Turturro when Margot's oft-mentioned husband appears; I certainly didn't. She cheats on him with such grimness, such a sense of inevitability, that I'd assumed the character — if we ever even saw him — would be more like her, careless, tactless, a dark star of unpleasantness and self-absorption. But then it's Turturro, who has a physical and emotional warmth here that, by the time he shows up, I realized I'd craved. The way the film is shot, it looks damp and cold in that house, as though it smells faintly of mildew and ancient pipe smoke. Turturro by contrast looks really…huggable, actually. Comforting. Sexy, even.
And then he's gone. And I understood why he left, but I didn't understand why he'd come in the first place — why these people had even married each other. I had the same problem with Vanessa and Mark in Juno; yes, they should split up, but the baby isn't the problem. The problem is that they shouldn't have gotten married to begin with, because they don't suit each other. They don't even like each other, really, by the time we see them.
Of course, this is part of the movie's point — that unlikable people get by with it, because the other, more tolerable people with whom they've surrounded themselves hope in vain that, as tends to happen only in the movies, the Margot in their lives will have some sort of epiphany and stop corroding their nerve endings with her toxic bullshit. Here, you see the reality: that that never happens, that Pauline should know better, and knows she should know better, but she can't stop herself, she wants a big sister who's a friend, who protects her, and she won't admit that Margot can't do that.
Baumbach can't leave it at that, though, and he adds icing to it that weakens the movie. There's a great little throwaway moment after the disastrous reading in town, where Pauline is overselling to Margot how Dick kind of mugged her emotionally in front of the audience, and Margot isn't really listening or reacting to her; she should have expected that takedown (or another one like it, from someone else), given how she behaves, which she doesn't grasp, and she shouldn't expect any sympathy from Pauline, which she doesn't grasp…or she takes it for granted that Pauline is desperate for a connection with her and will take her side even when there's no side to take. She doesn't have to act right, because other people will.
But having Malcolm make out with the neighbor's teenage daughter…Baumbach needed an inciting incident to get the group out of the house for the ending sequence, but that didn't really hang together either — what does he want us to take from Margot dashing after the bus? Certainly not that she's having a realization about herself; Claude might choose to believe she is, although he doesn't seem to have any illusions about his mother, but really she's just disrupting everyone else's day with her big dramatic show of chasing after Claude when what's really going on is that she's fleeing a confrontation with her mother and her third sister, who don't like her — and we've already seen her do half a dozen variations on that. And is Pauline a hippie feng-shui-obsessed type or not? Three or four lines of dialogue thrown in for cheap laughs don't sell that trait, and Jennifer Jason Leigh does just fine making the character frustrating and naÃ¯ve without Baumbach putting a thumb on the scale like that. I think it's an attempt to give the "good guy" some dimension with a flaw, but it doesn't quite work.
The film juuuuust misses as a real diamond — perfectly formed and hard and cold — but it seemed like Baumbach fell off it a bit, in the end, that he didn't push as hard as he could have because he wanted us to laugh a few times and not feel depressed at the end. But the thing about Margots is, you really do just have to put them out to the curb and find a way to feel okay about it, and while Baumbach and his characters all seemed to at least sense the truth of that, he didn't take it all the way.