Margot at the Wedding is filled with the kind of characters you don’t want to admit you recognize. They snap at each other and say intentionally hurtful things. They’re passive-aggressive, waiting for someone to realize how hurt or angry they are. Most of all they are usually so self-absorbed they hardly notice one another, or the harm they are causing to those around them.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s genius is that he can make these people relatable, if not exactly likable. Led by the cold, self-aggrandizing Margot (Nicole Kidman), the family on display here fights through its demons in a way that is ineffective and often frustrating, but always fascinating to watch.
Margot, a successful Manhattan-based writer, has decided to travel to Long Island for the wedding between her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and local loser Malcolm (Jack Black), though she and Pauline have not spoken for years. Margot doesn’t approve of the marriage and has no trouble saying as much to her adolescent son (Zane Pais) or Pauline even. Margot and Pauline make attempts at rekindling a sisterly spirit, but with Margot’s penchant for cut-to-the-bone insult and her revelation that her trip was also motivated by a chance to catch up with her lover Dick (Ciaran Hinds), the goodwill fades quickly. Add to that an unwelcome surprise visit from Margot’s husband (John Turturro) and a revelation about Malcolm’s feelings towards the teenage babysitter (Halley Feiffer), and the wedding weekend falls completely apart before anyone has a chance to say “I do.”
Baumbach made his name two years ago with The Squid and the Whale, which took the same sarcastic microscope to familial relationships, both venerating and condemning its self-important characters. Margot is more relatable though, because it escapes the hermetic world of Squid’s literary Park Slope, taking on a family that is also literary and New York-based, but so universally relatable it’s enough to make anyone cringe. Who doesn’t recognize their hyper-critical aunt in the testy Margot, or the eager-to-please sibling in the vulnerable Pauline? As the members of this family circle around each other, speaking in overthought truisms (“I haven’t had that thing where you realize you’re not the most important person in the world,” Malcolm says) and uncovering years of abuse and neglect, you see past the stately Hamptons home and literary trappings to the true family underneath.
Margot is shot in a natural, unobtrusive style, which occasionally results in murky cinematography but overall gives it a realistic, comfortable feel. All the actors give excellent performances, including Black stretching his dramatic muscles as the unlucky Malcolm. Kidman may be typecast as an ice queen, but she pulls it off brilliantly, making Margot sympathetic if not exactly relatable even at her most calculating, selfish moments.
It might be impossible to love the characters Baumbach gives us here, but they’re always worth watching, if only for the excellent actors who bring them to life. Margot’s story is not as tightly contained as Squid and the Whale, and the third act especially seems to have a lot of trouble wrapping itself up. Still, Baumbach has made a worthy follow-up to his breakout success, and has further proven his fine grasp on intricate, unique, and entirely loathsome characters.