“Margot at the Wedding” is a circus of family neuroses and bad behavior that perhaps a therapist could make sense of better than Noah Baumbach can. Displaying some of the keen insight into the screwed-up minds of East Coast literati the writer-director displayed so winningly in “The Squid and the Whale” and showing ever-developing instincts as a director, this study of a disastrous reunion of two sisters feels more like a collection of arresting scenes than a fully conceived and developed drama. Certain acclaim from some quarters will fuel good initial B.O. in major cities, but off-the-charts self-involvement of all the characters will stall crossover to wider auds.
This is a clan whose members think nothing of playing out all their psychosexual traumas and intimate personality conflicts in front of their assorted children of all ages; in fact, the adults don’t even stop to realize they’re doing it. Perhaps some viewers will accept this as brutally honest telling-it-like-it-is, but the spectacle of such heedless self-absorption by people whose job it is to be insightful, as writers and teachers and artists, will prove too great an irony for most viewers to swallow.
Setting the standard for self-absorption for all others to follow is the beauteous Margot (Nicole Kidman), a short-story writer of some note who journeys with her puberty-pushing son Claude (Zane Pais) to the family compound along the Eastern seaboard as surprise guests at the wedding of teacher sis Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to self-styled artist Malcolm (Jack Black).
Long estranged, the sisters may fantasize about burying the hatchet for the weekend, but the impossibility of this instantly becomes apparent when Margot, sustained by steady doses of white wine and weed, begins laying into Pauline and trying to talk her out of marrying Malcolm, an obese layabout with nothing apparent going for him. “He’s like guys we rejected when we were 16,” Margot cuttingly points out, although there is a mitigating factor: Pauline — who already has a daughter, Ingrid (Flora Cross), a bit younger than Claude — is pregnant.
Margot has her own hidden agenda. Fed up with her marriage, she has insisted her husband Jim (John Turturro) not come to the wedding. Assuredly not by coincidence, she has a local bookstore appearance scheduled with former flame Dick (Ciaran Hinds), an arrogant fellow writer she seems intent on hooking up with again. Dick’s provocative teenage daughter, Maisy (Halley Feiffer), is also around to do her part in stirring the male hormones and spurring subsequent recriminations.
All this reps an unholy stew of ill will, festering emotions, latent resentments, barely disguised agendas and rampant incivility, so it’s a tribute to Baumbach’s skills as a writer and director that he manages to make spending time with these folks as tolerable as he does. Any number of dialogue exchanges, especially between the sisters, are exceptionally sharp, as old scores are resurrected, new charges are filed and secrets are spilled in a bobsled ride of cascading accusations and emotions.
Stylistically, the film is most exciting in the way Baumbach and editor Carol Littleton boldly cut right into dramatic scenes that are already underway and sometimes jump out of them before they conclude in a normal manner. Many interludes bear a resemblance to the sort of bitter intra-family dialogue one is accustomed to hearing in serious theatrical dramas, but the traditional shaping of such scenes has been scrapped in favor of something that approaches the dramatic equivalent of cinematic jump-cutting.
The rhythm is reinforced by the discreet handheld camerawork by virtuoso lenser Harris Savides, who gets in close but without any jitters or getting into the actors’ tonsils. Only the extremely dim, washed-out night and low-light scenes create any visual disappointment.
Thesps are constantly charged up, their nerve endings frayed and exposed. Kidman is the rawest as the most dangerously neurotic and manipulative of the bunch, Leigh the most prone to mood swings, while Black, whose character is not yet a family insider — more luck to him — works in a mode of emotional opaqueness that itself may mask the man’s intense neuroses. Newcomer Pais is very good as the son who learns way too much too fast.
Strong humor flecks the film’s opening passages, and it’s a good bet that more of it would have made the latter stages more palatable, as was the case in “Squid.” For all the talent on display, many viewers will have had more than enough of these characters well before the relatively brief running time has expired.