The characters in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding are a second-generation Freudian train wreck, with the third generation racing down the track, probably unable to stop in time. They say everything that’s on their minds, especially if it might hurt. They take compliments as passive-aggressive insults. They do what they feel like doing and then laugh and scream about it later (as in: later that day).
Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a teacher who lives in the upstate New York home that her parents once owned, is marrying Malcolm (Jack Black), a prodigal musician/artist who freely admits that “I haven’t had that thing yet where you realize you’re not the most important person in the world.” He’s a decent match for Pauline because she’s childlike, too, but in a girly way, so she’s nurturing as well.
Not so for Pauline’s malicious sister Margot (Nicole Kidman), an autobiographical novelist who lives in Manhattan with (for now) her gentle professor/husband (John Turturro). They have a teen-age son, Claude (Zane Pais), with whom Margot is very close, and very open: When he asks, she lets him share her bed, with a pillow between them, and he lets her know when he masturbates.
When they gather for the wedding, family kinetics fester immediately, aggravated by Margot’s long-ago lover, himself a novelist, who lives nearby with his Lolita-esque daughter. The setting is dangerously sylvan, for these people are a conflagration.
Margot at the Wedding is contagious with metaphor, starting with its title, which comes onto the screen like a home movie, and which recalls the slice-of-life films of the French philosopher/realist Eric Rohmer (Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach). But while the concept is Rohmerian, the tone is blisteringly Bergmanic, from the therapeutic dialogue to the things people do with and to each other.
It’s all terribly messy, disturbing and irresolvable, which is the point that Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) wants to make in his challenging films. These people are often repulsive, and Margot is almost unforgivable: She tells Claude how much better he used to be as a child, and his tears mitigate her depression. They all have too much education and way too much ego. And yet Malcolm, who comes from a different place, fits right in, giving us little hope for anyone.
Baumbach’s intelligent script simmers with good writing, and his actors are all sublime. It’s exciting to watch Kidman work through each internal crisis, and the exhilarating Leigh should be legally required to make more movies. Even Black explores nuances of his trademark buffoonery that are as plaintive as they are funny. (”My scrotum is longer than my penis,” he observes, quite seriously, standing bare-assed in front of a mirror.) Cinema like this requires a belief that everyone’s life is interesting if it’s richly portrayed, regardless of how hideous those lives may be, and Baumbach, who is clearly telling stories drawn from his life and his family, has become its new master.