Noah Baumbach's tart and engaging Squid and Whale from a couple years back may have been one of the most expensive therapy sessions in recent memory. An admittedly autobiographical film, it charted the vitriolic relationships between selfish New York intellectuals and the hapless children left in their wake. Still, despite all the hurtful behavior of Baumbach's parental stand-ins (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney), his obvious love for both tempered the nastiness, providing the movie with balance and psychological insight.
With Margot at the Wedding, we're again wallowing in the ugly interfamilial warfare of self-absorbed neurotics. This story of adult sisters caught in a souring relationship, however, has no emotional core to offset its sharp, cruel exterior, and instead is a mostly painful experience, akin to watching despicable, self-centered characters pleading for your understanding and acceptance.
Accompanied by her adolescent son (Zane Pais), New York-based fiction writer Margot (Nicole Kidman) travels to her childhood home to attend the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh — Baumbach's wife). Clearly rebounding from a string of failed relationships, Pauline has chosen an unemployed depressive for her beau. Slovenly artist-musician Malcolm (Jack Black) is far from the perfect mate but the two seem happy. Unfortunately, this isn't enough for the bitchy, almost sociopathic Margo, who seeds discord wherever she goes. Cheating on her husband (John Turturro in a well-played and understated cameo), subtly ridiculing Malcolm, viciously criticizing her son, provoking the neighbors and carelessly revealing Pauline's secrets, Margot is an emotional terrorist who mines her family's miseries and turns them into well-regarded novels. Will the wedding ever survive? Who cares?
The trouble with making a movie about tediously self-centered and loathsome people is that your film is in danger of becoming equally tedious, self-centered and loathsome. Though Baumbach clearly envisions himself as a Manhattanite version of Eric Rohmer (going so far to ape his titles ... Pauline at the Beach, Chloe in the Afternoon, etc.), he lacks the French director's universality and humanism. There are no simple truths in Margot or Pauline's behaviors, just shallow solipsism. Everyone is so self-indulgent and unlikable that even when Baumbach's dialogue crackles (which it often does) it never adds up to anything more than verbal fireworks.
By framing the film from Margot's point of view, Baumbach emotionally neuters the film, keeping every scornful interaction on the surface. Margot has no introspection or insight, she's simply a mean-spirited narcissist. Hell, she might as well be Hannibal Lecter for all her ability to connect with other people. And the presence of children makes everything feel that much more unpleasant. Unlike Squid and Whale, where Jesse Eisenberg (playing Baumbach's surrogate) achieved some inner peace about his parents, the children in Margot are little more than obstacles or victims.
Which is a shame because Baumbach gets terrific performances from his cast and creates the kind of fly-on-the-wall intimacy many directors struggle for but fail to achieve. Kidman's performance is chilly and one-note (the script's fault), but artfully crafted. Her innately cold persona, however, doesn't help to melt Margot's already icy exterior. Jennifer Jason Leigh fares much better, giving depth and neurotic warmth to Margot's beleaguered sister and despite the actresses' obvious physical dissimilarities, they convincingly capture the push-and-pull of sisters who know, but don't understand, each other. The supporting cast is mostly excellent. Jack Black delivers a credibly straight-faced slacker — until a farcically bad crying jag in the film's final act.
There's an undeniable purity to Baumbach's depiction of self-centered callousness, but his characters aren't very interesting and his plot developments too often cross into melodrama. Worse, many of his characters are snobs and so, ultimately, the film's snobbish. Anyone who is not part of New York's literary bourgeoisie is coarse or, as in the case of Pauline's neighbors, potentially inbred. In many ways Margot at the Wedding is as condescending as its title character.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.