Eventually it may be that Noah Baumbach
could turn into this country's answer to France's Eric Rohmer, turning out a steady diet of small, circumspect dramas about the lives and neurotic times of New York-era literary bourgeoisie. That's one of the things that comes to mind as one takes in Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach's fourth time out as writer/director and one that seems to set a template for the future. It's a chill breeze of a film steeped in ugly inter-familial squabbling and the blinkered mentality of its self-absorbed characters who can generally only raise their gaze from their own navels long enough to find something lacking in the person they're addressing. The sour tone which was shot through Baumbach's previous work, The Squid and the Whale, has almost completely curdled here, though without losing any of that film's swift tartness.
As the titular Margot, Nicole Kidman
does the yeoman's share of the work here, as the bitchy and borderline sociopathic older sister who's reluctantly comes up from Manhattan to her sister Pauline's wedding at the ancestral country home, where she's marrying a guy she finds barely even worthy of her contempt. "He's not ugly, he's just completely unattractive," is one of the many evil bon mots that Baumbach gives Kidman to spit out in her seemingly compulsive need to find fault in and drive to despair anyone within eyesight. She makes quite a pair with Jennifer Jason Leigh
as Pauline, the two of them strangely beautiful while nestled under stringy and flyaway mouse-brown mops. Kidman's eyes are flashing and penetrating as Leigh's are dreamy, the two of them seemingly not of this planet but in entirely different ways. Article continues below
There's some ugly secret back in the familial past of this punchy and screwed-up family unit which has left them unable to truly connect to the other humans surrounding them, but there's not going to be any great reveal, as evidenced by Pauline's half-hearted attempt to psychoanalyze her and Margot's speedy bedhopping in their younger years. Meanwhile, the venom that boils inside Margot keeps spilling out, whether it's in attacking Pauline's fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black
playing a less manic version of his standard oaf), criticizing the son she's dragged along, or loudly critiquing the parenting skills exhibited by the dangerous rednecks living next door (non-urbanites being a rare and not exactly understood species in Baumbach's work).
While the marriage of Pauline and Malcolm hardly seems ideal (she's a space cadet while he's a prototypically unambitious slacker), they do seem a comfortable pair with an easy, lived-in rapport. But that doesn't deter Margot, an emotional terrorist hell-bent on destruction, who's left a caring husband (John Turturro
) behind in the city in order to sabotage what's left of her life by carrying on an affair with an author (Ciarán Hinds, practically the only adult on view here) who lives near Pauline. One gets the feeling that the viewer is only dipping briefly into this dysfunctional stream, that the bitter badinage between all the characters as the wedding plans slowly unravel is just the same as it has always been, no better or worse. Lessons will most likely not be learned and attitudes only hardened, never changed.
While Margot at the Wedding is certainly a smart and honestly ugly film, with well-toned dialogue and an acute understanding of neurotic compulsion, it's hard to see it as anything but a minor piece of work; a stop-off on Baumbach's road to (hopefully) bigger things. Or, he could follow Rohmer's path; there are worse things.