November 29, 2007

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Margot at the Wedding (R)
Noah Baumbach, writer and director of The Squid and the Whale, makes you cringe with horror and delight in Margo at the Wedding, another family dramady full of well-meaning self-centered adults and their confused, mortified children.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude (Zane Pais) have traveled from New York City to Margot’s childhood home for her sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding. Pauline now lives in the home with her fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black) and her daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross). Malcolm is basically a good guy, at least he seems at first like he’s basically a good guy, but he has no job — he appears to be some kind of letter-writer, Margot whispers exasperatedly during a phone call — and Margot can’t understand why her sister is marrying him. Maybe it’s because she’s afraid of growing old alone or maybe it’s because, as she tells Margot in confidence, she’s pregnant. Margot promises not to tell anyone and then tells her son Claude, who then tells Ingrid, naturally.

But there’s a good chance Margot, despite her passive-aggressive bitchery about Malcolm and about Pauline’s life, isn’t actually even interested in Pauline’s impending marriage. We learn that Margot, an author, will attend a reading in town and that the reading will be hosted by Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), the man for whom Margot has more or less left her husband Jim (John Turturro). Though Margot hasn’t told Claude yet, she surprised Jim with her plans in a letter after leaving for Pauline’s.

Pauline is hurt when she realizes that Margot isn’t really there for her but she’s perhaps even more afraid that Margot will use her life to write a story, spreading the problems and secrets of her family all over the Atlantic Monthly. Again.

Margot at the Wedding — which, like The Squid and the Whale, features a fractured family of writers with two sons — leads me to hope I never wind up at a Baumbach family event. The scab-picking and gentle insults — sharper here than in most families — quickly turn into crazy yelling and lives in chaos. The one truly genuine laugh Margot and Pauline share in the movie is a horrible cackle at the expense of another sister, a scene that is dark but very funny. The women are clearly toxic to each other (or maybe it’s more that Margot is toxic and quick to eat away at the weaker people around her) but they also love each other and there is a very real, very sisterly quality to their relationship.

Kidman is glorious as the monstrous Margot — quick to offend but shocked when people take offense. Without Kidman’s ever winking at the camera or playing big, she makes Margot a perfect parody of the kind of self-assured, liberated intellectual woman that she thinks she is. Margot is a bundle of nerves and tics but has the kind of strength that allows her nerves and tics to manifest themselves in those around her. She seems a particular burden of craziness to her son, the befuddled Claude who is privy to way too many of her adult observations about Pauline and her life.

Baumbach has a way of shooting his actors that, while leaving them their supernaturally attractive actor selves gives them a very disheveled, human look. The movie does the same to the characters — Margot’s not just “mom” or “sister,” she’s also a spiteful woman full of grudges who is confused about her own life and needs, desperately, for her son to not only love her but need her and respect her. (Which, we can tell, he either doesn’t or soon won’t.) We get the layered person, awful in the ways we can be awful and not particularly constant. Real, in other words.

Margot at the Wedding isn’t quite as hilarious or painful as The Squid and the Whale but it has the feel of a very satisfying short story by the same author. B

Rated R for sexual content and language. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Margot at the Wedding is an hour and 31 minutes and is distributed by Paramount Vantage.