It’s All Relative

There are comedies of discomfort, and then there’s Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach’s scalding follow-up to The Squid and the Whale. An immersion in sibling malice and simmering resentment, with one of the most infuriating characters in recent movies holding us under, Margot trumps the commandment that only the pure of heart and noble of deed are worth a viewer’s scrutiny. Hard as it may be to imagine a comedy that inflicts all the psychic torment of Cries and Whispers, Baumbach has pulled off a more psychologically acute — and funnier — version of the Bergman pastiches that Woody Allen attempted 30 years ago, with a jumpy, nerve-rattling rhythm all his own.

Played by Nicole Kidman, all sculpted cheekbones and blithe venom, Margot could be the dejected, midlife version of the hyperliterate grads in Baumbach’s first feature, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming — people whose education taught them to parse others’ sentences for slights. Within moments of her introduction, she outs herself as a Rommel of passive aggression — the kind of person who advises her sister to stay out of Williamsburg because it’s “for the young.”

Margot and her son Claude (Zan Pais) are traveling to a Long Island family home, Chekhov by way of Cheever, where her sister’s wedding is to take place. The introduction of that sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), typifies the movie’s racing pulse: She’s shown standing still as Margot arrives — the cinematic inhaling of a deep breath — before a jarring cut catches her in midstride, shoving her toward a reunion she clearly dreads. (Here and throughout, Carol Littleton’s unobtrusive jump-cutting sharpens the senses.) As her fiancé, lumpen music-critic manqué Malcolm (Jack Black), punches up the vows, the sisters settle in for a weekend of rapidly deepening anxiety.

As in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s chosen milieu is the company of educated, intelligent, emotionally blinkered New Yorkers who know how to use words for everything except concern. He writes lacerating dialogue — it doesn’t just lash the intended target but also lays open the speaker. “When you were a baby, I wouldn’t let anyone else hold you,” Margot coos to Claude, setting him up for the kill: “I think maybe that was a mistake.” The scene in which Pauline shows Margot her room, acted by Kidman and Leigh with a seismograph’s sensitivity to shifting emotional ground, sketches a lifetime of sibling rivalry in just a few surgically cutting lines, culminating in Pauline’s desperate topper: “I’ve become a really good cook.”

Baumbach draws Margot, Pauline, Claude and the surrounding characters with a wealth of novelistic detail, creating a denser, gamier, more complex sense of family life than American movies typically dare. Sometimes, perhaps, the detail is too novelistic and schematic — a literal family tree with rotting roots is as metaphorically on-the-nose as the emotional Samsonite of his collaborator Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. But the pseudo-doc immediacy of Baumbach’s direction diverts us from any obviousness in the construction, wisely emphasizing the concrete over the symbolic. In this, he is helped immensely by the mottled palette and over-the-shoulder intensity of Harris Savides’ camerawork, which turns a shallow depth of field into existential near panic.

Some critics complained that, with The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach was a narcissist ransacking his own broken home for material, and some will read Margot as a scathing matricidal affront. But the character is more a Baumbach surrogate; this deeply perceptive movie is an act of penance.

Why should we give a damn about a character as toxic as Margot? A solemn truth about family is that it’s almost impossible to hate people we know this well. Margot, in Kidman’s compellingly unlikable performance, is every relative whose motives and utterances we’ve picked apart on the drive home from some misbegotten holiday, blissfully unaware that she is doing the same to us.

Bring the family to Margot at the Wedding. It may prove therapeutic. Or better yet, leave them.

Categories: Movies