Margot at the Wedding (Paramount Vantage), Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to his intimate divorce drama, The Squid and the Whale (2005), is like a promising first draft of a movie. You can imagine the notes a good line editor might have made on the script, deleting a redundant scene here, expanding a transition there, gently reminding the director-screenwriter to watch out for his own authorial tics. It’s too bad Baumbach’s movie is already shot, edited, and up there on the screen, because after a few rounds with a red pencil, it could really have been something worth watching.
What Squid and the Whale did for divorce—that is, hold up one particular educated, upper-middle-class instance of it to pitiless psychological scrutiny—Margot at the Wedding tries to do for sibling rivalry. Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a successful New York novelist who travels with her almost-adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais) to the East Coast beach house where she grew up, and where her semi-estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is about to marry a depressive, unemployed artist named Malcolm (Jack Black). In the few days leading up to the wedding, the adults sprawl around the house, drinking, smoking dope, and bickering, while the children (Pauline also has a preteen daughter, played by Flora Cross) draw pictures and exchange family secrets.
The screenplay wastes no time in establishing Margot as a monster—a competitive, passive-aggressive narcissist who couches her toxic barbs in the language of sisterly concern. She openly disparages the schlumpy Malcolm, breaks her vow to keep Pauline’s new pregnancy under wraps, and undermines her son’s budding sense of self-worth by comparing his new adolescent body to the “rounded, graceful” one he had as a child. But there’s something affecting about Margot, too—Kidman manages to evoke the vulnerability beneath her brittleness, and the desire for recognition that drives her to such extreme acts of bitchery.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s real-life wife, gives an uncharacteristically toned-down performance as the scattered, hippie-ish Pauline. She’s like an older, sadder version of the fragile teenager she played 25 years ago in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Kidman and Leigh, typically cast as the ice princess and the emotionally naked waif, are unexpectedly believable as sisters, and they throw themselves into their roles with commendable passion. But the script doesn’t give them any place to go besides round and round the same neurotic hamster wheel.
Baumbach has always had a knack for directing adolescent boys, from Jesse Eisenbach and Owen Kline in The Squid and the Whale to the kid who played the young Eric Stoltz in Mr. Jealousy. Twelve-year-old newcomer Zane Pais is wonderfully affecting as Margot’s awkward son—you want to rush the screen and offer him bus fare to escape this dreadful family. But other characters—like Dick (Ciarán Hinds), a neighbor of Pauline’s who’s also Margot’s writing partner and sometime lover—are barely accorded enough screen time for us to keep their faces straight. John Turturro shows up as Margot’s husband in a role so brief it’s almost a cameo. Yet the imminent disintegration of their marriage is critical to the story: Shouldn’t we have some idea who this guy is?
Baumbach can also pack a lot into a one-liner (learning he’s soon to be a father, Malcolm observes, “That thing hasn’t kicked in yet where you realize you’re not the center of the universe”), and he has a fine eye for the odd details that help build character. But a fully realized character is more than an accumulation of blurted non sequiturs. Margot at the Wedding abounds in details that remain simply mystifying: Why does Pauline soil herself in one crucial scene? Why does Margot interrupt a Q&A session at a bookstore with a long, possibly fabricated story about her encounter with a menacing refrigerator repairman? And what do the two sisters’ hazy references to an abusive childhood finally add up to? I’m not asking for a Lifetime-network moment of pat psychological revelation, just a completed story arc every now and then.
The movie’s title, and the presence of a character named Pauline, telegraph Baumbach’s debt to Eric Rohmer, director of Pauline at the Beach and other wryly observed chronicles of romantic and family love. But Baumbach’s claustrophobic misanthropy here is more evocative of late Woody Allen. I still have plenty of hope for this talented writer-director. But like Margot at the Wedding’s compulsively blathering protagonist, he has yet to learn that good writing is also the art of knowing when to shut up.