- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on www.commonsensemedia.org.

‘Margot at the Wedding’

Rating: PG-13

Common Sense Media: Pause. For ages 16 and older.

*** (out of five stars)

Running time: 93 minutes

Common Sense review: “I can’t say I have a whole lot of hope for the whole thing,” says Margot (Nicole Kidman) at the start of “Margot at the Wedding.” She and her adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), are on their way to Margot’s childhood home in the Hamptons, where her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) now lives with her fiance, Malcolm (Jack Black). Unfortunately, Margot’s sense of foreboding influences the film as much as her sister’s upcoming nuptials.

Claude soon finds himself in a maelstrom of immature adults and children who compete for attention and resent one another. His perspective more or less grounds Noah Baumbach’s latest investigation of long-festering family dysfunction, and so his changing attitudes toward his mother, aunt and Malcolm — as well as his cousin Ingrid (Flora Cross) and teenage housekeeper Maisy (Halley Feiffer) — tend to shape viewers’.

When Claude looks to his mother for guidance, he’s more often than not disappointed. Margot is a successful New York-based writer who repeatedly belittles Pauline’s choice of Malcolm — “He’s not good enough for you. He’s so coarse. He’s like the guys we rejected in high school” — while also framing herself as a victim; her own marriage, to Jim (John Turturro), is in trouble, although she hasn’t yet revealed this to her son.

Margot explains her own wandering eye (she’s having an affair with Dick, another writer played by Ciaran Hinds) as an inevitable cultural effect: “We’re at that age when we’re becoming invisible to men,” she tells her sister, which means she’s vulnerable to any sign of “interest.” Although Pauline wants to believe her relationship with Malcolm is the real thing, she worries that her own insecurity and loneliness make her impossible to love. The fact that she and Margot haven’t spoken for years and are only now attempting to reconcile doesn’t help her self-esteem, since Margot immediately puts her back into fretful-little-sister mode.

The film turns into a series of arguments and dire revelations; each is well-acted, but their accumulation eventually feels crushing. When Margot at last decides to send Claude off alone on a bus, his simultaneous reluctance to go and desire to trust her is heartbreaking. That it’s captured in a few moments in which he and his mother are, at last, not talking, not trying so desperately to order their feelings through language suggests, at last, that there’s hope for them. Smartly, though, the film keeps still, at last, on Claude’s face, letting you imagine his future.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that this mature, sometimes-uncomfortable drama isn’t for children, even though Mr. Black co-stars (this is definitely not one of his over-the-top comedy roles). Focused on the long-repressed conflicts between two adult sisters, its themes include competition, sexual desire and frustration, and passive-aggressive behavior. Several arguments include yelling and crying, and two brief fights show victims (men) getting kicked or hit. There are discussions and images of masturbation, rape and abuse.

Families can talk about the ways this family deals with pain and betrayal. Do their interactions and reactions seem realistic to you? Why is it important to deal with tensions between siblings and between parents and children? How does communication help people resolve differences? Would better communication have helped Margot and Pauline? Families also can discuss the movie’s open-ended “ending.” What do you think of movies like that? Why do most Hollywood movies not end that way?

Sexual content: A couple appear in bed, with the woman’s breasts visible. Sisters discuss their sexual pasts several times, including that of another, unseen sister. Dick kisses Margot in the car. An adult man admits to sexual activity with a female teenager. Claude admits to masturbating. Suggestion that pregnancy prompted the wedding.

Language alert: Multiple uses of strong expletives.

Violence alert: Sisters recall their father’s abuse (he beat them with a belt). Margot yells at a woman who’s pulling on her daughter’s arm; she yells back at Margot. An argument results in a slap. A dog is hit by a car, and Jim tries to save it (some blood visible). A boy beats up and bites Claude (who yells loudly in pain). Dick chases and kicks Malcolm, who cries. Discussion of unseen sister’s rape.

Commercialism alert: Margot is concerned with promoting her new book.

Social behavior alert: The movie is a veritable study of “bad” behavior — adults act out, compete and abuse one another emotionally. Their children watch, worry and try to make sense of the bickering, yelling and withholding.

Alcohol/tobacco/drug alert: Some cigarette smoking and wine drinking. Margot finds pills in a drawer.

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