Director Noah Baumbach, Oscar-nominated for writing the 2005 gem The Squid and the Whale, is the rarest kind of filmmaker in formula Hollywood: He makes every word count without cheating on his characters for an easy laugh. Margot at the Wedding, following Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy and Squid, is a moral tale in the tradition of France’s Eric Rohmer. It’s the people, not the plot, driving this comedy of appalling manners. And Baumbach, with acute intelligence and annihilating wit, writes people with flaws we can (if we’re honest) recognize as our own. Nicole Kidman plays Margot, a short-story writer who leaves Manhattan to attend the wedding of her teacher sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), at the run-down family home in the Hamptons.
Sound simple? Wait. Margot hasn’t seen her sister in years. She disapproves of Pauline’s choice of unemployed slob Malcolm (Jack Black) as a husband. She disapproves of her own teen son, Claude (Zane Pais), for thinking Malcolm is cool. She disapproves of anything just to see how far she can push family and friends in the name of affection. Margot has a secret: She’s thinking of leaving her husband (John Turturro) and son to t a new life. It’s a wickedly demanding role, calling for rage, regret and comic timing that leaves welts. And Kidman delivers on all fronts. Margot gets hers during a bookstore interview with an author lover (Ciarán Hinds) who maliciously turns her own writing against her. This is a different kind of comedy, the kind that bleeds.
Kidman finds her match in Leigh, Baumbach’s wife of two years and a stunning actress who stormed the battlements of neurosis in 1995’s Georgia as a toxic thorn in the side of her celeb sister (Mare Winningham). Pauline is softer on the surface, susceptible to Margot’s put-downs of Malcolm even though he comforts her and makes her laugh, except when he macks on the teen baby sitter (Halley Feiffer). In an award-caliber performance, Leigh finds Pauline’s resilient humor and surprising strength. Leigh and Kidman ignite in wounding scenes that still take measure of love that hasn’t slipped between the cracks.
Dissenters who see this film as a wallow in self-absorption aren’t paying attention. Baumbach is acutely attuned to the droll mind games of smart people who only think they’re impervious to feeling. Watch how he deals with the children of these damaged adults, children who have to carve out their own space for hope amid emotional devastation. It seems like a throwaway scene when Claude and Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) try to gross each other out. Then Ingrid notes that she once left a piece of her own peeling skin at a movie theater “so it could watch movies all its life.” If it’s this kind of movie, lucky skin.