We’ll give you this: Noah Baumbach is a masterful writer of cringingly sad-funny dialogue, and quite possibly an astute chronicler of a certain segment of the neurotic sorta-intelligentsia. But we hate his characters. We hate them so much that halfway through "Margot at the Wedding" we decided that the only way we could preserve any positive feelings toward the film would be if in its final act an errant UFO crashed into the seaside house in which most of the characters reside, killing them all in a giant ball of extraterrestrial flame. This did not happen, perhaps because the money went toward casting instead.
And fine casting it is: Nicole Kidman as the porcelain Margot, a writer of New Yorker short stories that, despite her insistence otherwise, cannibalize details from the lives of her family members; Jennifer Jason Leigh as her scattered sister Pauline, who invites Margot up to her wedding in their childhood home as a kind of self-destructive gesture; Jack Black as Malcolm, Pauline’s well-meaning ne’er-do-well fiancÃ©; Zane Pais as Claude, Margot’s overprotected son. Margot and company seem to dwell in the same realm as the characters of "The Squid and the Whale" (and, for that matter, "Kicking and Screaming") but don’t have the excuses of being directly inspired by the director’s home life or of being young and foolish. They are instead mainly extremely imperfect adults (as are many of us) who wave their disorders and their childhood traumas like emblems of passive-aggressive war (as most of us, we’d hope, avoid). Margot, whose own marriage is falling apart, is instantly critical of Malcolm, who succumbs to self-loathing as Pauline is pulled over to her sister’s point of view, while between Pauline and Margot are enough layers of history, love, mistrust, resentment and hate to warrant an archaeological dig. But for every scene with the right amount of bite (like the one in which Pauline goads Margot into showing off her tree-climbing skills) there are dozens that are just unpleasant, of sniping over dinners, at public readings, over phone calls ("You make me feel like shit â€” I hate myself when I’m with you" Margot tells her husband when he arrives to attempt to salvage things). At times the film, which is shot unflashily with lots of natural lighting, seems like Baumbach doing Woody Allen doing Ingmar Bergman. Well, maybe it’s consistently funnier than that, but it’s also reliant on the audience feeling some kind of inherent connection, if not sympathy, for its characters that we find incomprehensible, or at least as unreasonable as a disorderly spaceship.
"Margot at the Wedding" screened October 7 and 8th, and will open November 16 in limited release from Paramount Vantage.