Baumbach Makes It Up As He Goes Along; Saved by Kidman, Leigh

Running time 91 minutes
Written and directed by
Noah Baumbach
Starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black

Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, from his own screenplay, turns out to be more ambitious but less clearly focused than was his much acclaimed debut film, The Squid and the Whale (2005), which was loosely based on members of his own family, particularly his mother and father. Seemingly knowing gossip at the time of The Squid and the Whale, among literary acquaintances of the Baumbachs’, insisted that Noah had been much harder on his father character, played brilliantly by Jeff Daniels, than on his mother character, played no less brilliantly by Laura Linney. If the title character in Margot at the Wedding, Nicole Kidman’s Margot Zeller, bears even a slightly reflex resemblance to the writer-director’s own mother, than he can be said to have fully expunged the alleged favoritism he showed his mother in The Squid and the Whale. This is to say that Ms. Kidman’s Margot is one of the most unsympathetically narcissistic protagonists one could imagine in Mr. Baumbach’s family farce-comedy of emotional errors and eternally failing relationships. Only an actress of Ms. Kidman’s stature, talent and proven magnetism could make her mercurial character bearable and watchable for the full 91 minutes of the film, in which she is in almost every scene.

When the picture begins, Margot happens to be on the way to the wedding of her sister Pauline (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), though we learn later the two sisters had stopped talking to each other after Margot willfully broke up Pauline’s first marriage by something imprudent she said, as was her habit. Margot is a writer, you see, and writers in Mr. Baumbach’s world, and in the real world too, I imagine, are notorious for spilling the beans at the expense of their families and friends.

One of the biggest problems with Mr. Baumbach’s second film is that he seems to have made it up as he went along, throwing in two or three new characters here, and two or three laborious metaphors there. I must confess that I had trouble following all the proliferating subplots, and keeping all the relationships straight in my mind. For example, the budding non-relation between Margot’s teenage son, Claude (Zane Pais), and Pauline’s teenage daughter, Ingrid (Flora Cross), from her first marriage. They seem to have a thing for each other, but their hairdos’ are so messily alike that at times I had trouble telling them apart. There is much dressing and undressing in close quarters for all the main characters, and a casual, almost bohemian intimacy in their behavior.

One of the more interesting eccentrics in this carnival of eccentricity is Jack Black’s Malcolm, Pauline’s prospective second husband. Some people at the screening I attended couldn’t figure out why he had been written into the plot as such a hopeless loser, without a job or serious prospects, and self-consciously, albeit often charmingly and amusingly, self-deflating. Again, as with Ms. Kidman and Ms. Leigh, Mr. Black has reached such a high level in my estimation that he can do almost no wrong.

Then there is the main setting, an island off the New England coast, a comparatively underdeveloped offshoot of more posh and populous islands like Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. It seems a strangely desolate location for a wedding. Still, there seems to be enough of a downtown somewhere on the island to accommodate a well-attended book signing and interview session between the mini-celebrity author Margot and her writing partner and lover, Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds). The interview ends disastrously, of course, in one of Margot’s many spasms of self-recognition and self-loathing. Mr. Hinds, a distinctively charismatic presence, is another overqualified member of the cast. After a brief conversation with his daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer), who, while babysitting for Pauline, became physically involved with the hapless Malcolm, the outraged father chases the would-be husband all the way to the beach. Dick catches up with the grotesquely clumsy Malcolm, and soundly thrashes him. It all seemed to come out of the blue, which leads me to accept the rumor that Ms. Feiffer’s Maisy had much of her part end up on the cutting room floor.

Much of the action swirls around a red oak tree on which Margot climbs to settle a doubt raised about her active childhood propensities. She gets way up on the tree, looks down triumphantly at the rest of the wedding party and then discovers to her horror, as they walk away, that she is too scared to come down. When the local fire department has to rescue her, it marks another burst of bravado ending in humiliation. The tree itself is dying, and because it infringes on a nasty neighbor’s property and is killing the plants and flowers in his garden, it has to be sawed down. Malcolm undertakes the task with his usual lack of organization and manages to have the tree fall where it can do the most damage to the already doomed wedding. It is in the midst of all this chaos and carnage that the very tentative trucelike reconciliation of Margot and Pauline is smashed to smithereens. It is about this time also that Margot’s estranged husband, John Turturro’s Jim, flits in and out of the movie from his home in Vermont after experiencing a briefly sensual reunion with Margot that leaves them both more bewildered than before. Yet by the end of the film, Margot and her son, Claude, are sitting together on a bus to her husband Jim’s home, much as they started off sitting together on a train to Pauline’s wedding. Only this time their roles are reversed, with Margot, so poised and confident in the beginning, having become so hysterically frazzled by the end that Claude, so restlessly unsettled in the beginning, virtually assumes the role of parental stability.

As hard as it is for the viewer to navigate the raging currents of the narrative, with all its structural flaws leading to too many abrupt entrances and exits, Mr. Baumbach deserves a great deal of credit for the pungency and humor of much of the dialogue. Mr. Baumbach claims in the production notes that the inspiration for his stormy saga of warring siblings sprang from a single, enigmatic image that came to the writer-director almost like a dream: that of a mother and a son sitting on a train. Oddly, Margot at the Wedding leaves the viewers with the impression of an illogically remembered dream.

Baumbach Makes It Up As He Goes Along; Saved by Kidman, Leigh