‘Margot at the Wedding’

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman are comfortable with this kind of loose comedy that has the feel of a voyeuristic reality show.

By Bob Brown
   Those who enjoyed the dysfunctional family dynamics of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s highly praised and somewhat autobiographical The Squid and the Whale (2005) will feel quite at home here. You can laugh at the ridiculousness from a sense of smug superiority. Or you can laugh from the uncomfortable realization that you’re living just one whisker away from this lunacy yourself.
   As in The Squid, the focus is a broken family, particularly from the viewpoint of its children. Thirteen-year-old Claude (Zane Pais in his feature-length debut) is accompanying his mother, Margot (Nicole Kidman), to visit her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), on the occasion of Pauline’s imminent marriage to her latest boyfriend, Malcolm (Jack Black). The two sisters don’t live far apart: Margot in Manhattan and Pauline on the inherited estate of their parents on Long Island. But Margot has not spoken to Pauline in years for reasons that are not entirely clear.
   Their cordiality soon dissolves into a cascade of mutual accusations. It’s evident the family animosities haven’t changed over time, although there’s a sisterly bond that hasn’t entirely snapped either. Pauline confides to Margot that she’s pregnant, a secret she wishes to maintain until she can spring it at an opportune time. Margot has no sense of privacy, at least not within the family. So the news is soon all over the place, forcing Pauline’s hand.
   It’s soon also clear that Margot is here not just for the wedding (she’s not keen on Pauline marrying this jerk anyway). Margot is a published writer and, as such, a minor celebrity. She’s been asked to give a Q&A at a local book event, which is being sponsored by none other than her latest lover, Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds). Margot is toying with the idea of making this a weekend away from her husband, the long-suffering Jim (John Turturro), who nonetheless shows up out of the blue on his way to the family vacation home in Vermont.
   Claude and Ingrid (Flora Cross), Pauline’s daughter, hang out together and try to avoid the embarrassing childishness of their parents. Margot has a way of helping strangers by telling them how to raise their offspring — either suggesting assistance for their child’s “autism” or browbeating them into not beating their kid. Meanwhile, Malcolm and Pauline are struggling with his failure to look for real work (he spends weeks polishing letters to the editor of local publications), or his questionable faithfulness. He spends most of his time strumming on his guitar or drawing (he’s caught absent-mindedly penciling an X-rated doodle at the family lunch table one afternoon). When he’s mad, he rips bushes with his bare hands, or goes after a massive tree with a small chainsaw.
   As with his earlier work, Baumbach is less interested in linear narratives than he is in the authenticity of his characters — or, should we say, caricatures. They’re recognizable people, whose features are out of proportion to reality. One bond the sisters share is an abusive father who, the sisters agree, has led to their being promiscuous adults. They even compete on how many men they’ve bedded. Their openness extends to their children, who talk about sex in a very offhand manner, as if to discharge the power of something they haven’t yet experienced themselves.
   Both Leigh and Kidman are comfortable with this kind of loose comedy that has the feel of a voyeuristic reality show. Black is reliably hilarious, especially when his character Malcolm goes over the deep end. Baumbach has a talent for eliciting sensitive and sympathetic characters from the child actors he has directed. Both Pais and Cross (who made a great debut in Bee Season, 2005) are natural and unaffected, Pais scarily so. Cinematographer Harris Savides shot with a fashionably artless hand-held style. He used old lenses and natural light to heighten the sense of foreboding, as if the house of cards the sisters are creating would collapse at any moment. In a way, it does, with a resounding crash in a climatic moment.
   While this film is not as emotionally wrought and coherent as Baumbach’s previous work, it’s of a kind. What makes it watchable are the characterizations, unsettling as some of these people are. We have hope that, as a child of dysfunction, Claude will grow up with the perspective to be a man of greater sensitivity.
Rated R for sexual content and language.