Like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? for the Prozac set, Noah Baumbach’s gloriously dysfunctional Margot at the Wedding centers on two emotionally toxic sisters trapped in an old house filled with jealousy growing like a malignancy.
Baumbach has explored this notion of a fractured family before in The Squid and the Whale (2005). And in Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach is back to beat the Freudian bush for the similarly tempestuous themes of divorce, self-centered parents and their confused children, adultery and anxiety.
Despite all the cruelty, Margot at the Wedding is a ferociously droll treatment of the inescapably smothering catacomb of family. Suggesting the often poisoned and tangled female relationships seen in the work of female directors like Jane Campion and Nicole Holofcener, Baumbach’s film has much to offer. It allows Nicole Kidman, for one, to exceed her pretty little Botox-built prison. Kidman is wonderfully neurotic as the titular older sis Margot, a fiction writer certain every child she encounters is autistic and whose own relationship with her teenage son, Claude (Zane Pais), mixes shame and seduction. The boundaries between mother and son are so fluid, Claude feels free to tell his mother when he last masturbated, obviously flummoxed by the ample “sharing” that occurs between parents and children in Margot’s family. Margot descends on her baby sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) second wedding like a tsunami, unleashing killer waves of psychosexual anxiety.
Margot at the Wedding also profits from the unholy comic union of the Tourette’s-like Jack Black, as Pauline’s semi-moronic fiancé. Malcolm is a tubby layabout who trades gainful employment for ironic mustache-growing and letter-to-the-editor writing. Matching Black blow for blow in the unbalanced, self-absorption department is indie-angst queen Leigh as an academic who finds her fiancé’s flirtation with their college-bound baby sitter “sexy.”
Baumbach has been quite forthcoming about his use of his own life as material for his art. With two film critics for parents and a precocious New York upbringing, Baumbach’s autobiographical attic appears still stuffed with vintage treasures.
Like the forthcoming Tamara Jenkins film The Savages (about a chronically immature and damaged pair of siblings), Margot at the Wedding is masochistic comedy, but comedy nevertheless. Perhaps its power lies in the keen, rueful self-awareness it will inspire in many viewers. For so many of us well aware of the rivalries, jealousies, head games and anxieties of family, Margot at the Wedding will be the most satisfyingly perverse of holiday offerings.
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (3 ½ ) Directed by Noah Baumbach • Starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black • R, 91 min • At the Osio Cinemas.