There are comedies of discomfort, and then there's Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach's scalding follow-up to The Squid and the Whale. An immersion in sibling malice and simmering resentment, with one of the most infuriating characters in recent movies holding us under, Margot tramples the commandment that only the pure of heart and noble of deed are worth a viewer's scrutiny. Hard as it may be to imagine a comedy that inflicts all the psychic torment of Cries and Whispers, Baumbach has pulled off a more psychologically acute — and funnier — version of the Bergman pastiches Woody Allen attempted 30 years ago, with a jumpy, nerve-rattling rhythm all his own.
Played by Nicole Kidman, all sculpted cheekbones and blithe venom, Margot could be the dejected, midlife, midlist-career-and-a-busted-marriage-later version of the hyperliterate postgrads in Baumbach's first feature, 1995's Kicking and Screaming — people whose education taught them to parse others' sentences for slights. Introduced en route by train to her sister's wedding, Margot initially doesn't seem so bad — although it's an ill omen that the passenger her gangly adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais) mistakes her for is some random sourpuss.
But within moments, Mom outs herself as a Rommel of passive aggression — the kind who can accuse other parents of denying their child's autism, advise her sister to stay out of Williamsburg because it's "for the young," or gaze sadly at her son and sigh, "You used to be more graceful." "We're supporting her," Margot says firmly of attending her sister's nuptials, of which she doesn't approve. "I thought she wasn't speaking to you," Claude says. "I wasn't speaking to her," she corrects him, "but I'm over it now." That her lover (Ciaran Hinds) lives nearby is purely coincidental.
Their destination is a Long Island family home, Chekhov by way of Cheever, where the happy event is to take place. The introduction of sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) typifies the movie's racing pulse: She's shown standing still as Margot arrives — the cinematic inhaling of a deep breath — and smack! A jarring cut catches her in midstride, shoving her toward a reunion she clearly dreads. (Here, as throughout, The Big Chill editor Carol Littleton's unobtrusive jump-cutting sharpens the senses.) As her fiancé, lumpen music critic manqué Malcolm (Jack Black), punches up the vows with a little levity ("Not jokey," he explains defensively, "more character-based humor"), the sisters settle in for a weekend of rapidly deepening anxiety.
As in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach's chosen milieu is the company of educated, intelligent, empathetically blinkered New Yorkers who know how to use words for everything except concern. He writes dialogue that genuinely lacerates — it doesn't just lash the intended target, it lays open the speaker as well. "When you were a baby, I wouldn't let anyone else hold you," Margot coos to Claude, setting him up for the kill: "I think maybe that was a mistake." The scene in which Pauline shows Margot her (storage) room, acted by Kidman and Leigh with a seismograph's sensitivity to shifting emotional ground, sketches a lifetime of sibling rivalry in just a few surgically cutting lines, culminating in Pauline's desperate topper: "I've become a really good cook."
It gets worse, as Margot sloughs off her idealized husband (an atypically studly John Turturro), blabbermouths a secret sure to upend Pauline's household, and voices at every opportunity how certain she is that Pauline is marrying beneath her. So why should we give a damn about a character this toxic? A solemn truth about family is that it's almost impossible to hate people we know this well. Margot, in Kidman's compellingly unlikable performance, is every relative whose motives and utterances we've picked apart on the drive home from some misbegotten holiday, blissfully unaware that she is doing the same to us.
Baumbach draws Margot, Pauline, Claude, and the surrounding characters with a wealth of novelistic detail, creating a denser, gamier, and more complex sense of family life than American movies typically dare. Sometimes, perhaps, the detail is too novelistic and schematic — a literal family tree with rotting roots is as metaphorically on-the-nose as the emotional Samsonite of his collaborator Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited. But the pseudo-doc immediacy of Baumbach's direction diverts us from any obviousness in the construction, wisely emphasizing the concrete over the symbolic. In this, he's helped immensely by the mottled palette and over-the-shoulder intensity of Harris Savides' camerawork, which turns a shallow depth of field into existential near-panic.
When The Squid and the Whale came out, Baumbach was branded a whiny narcissist in some quarters — a sneak thief ransacking his own broken home for self-serving material — and some critics at this year's Toronto film festival took Margot as a scathing matricidal affront. If we insist on reading the movie as autobiography, it would seem that Margot — a writer who plunders her family troubles for a New Yorker story and faces the music — is more a directorial surrogate, and the movie an act of penance. But that just reduces one of the most perceptive films of this year to inside baseball. As a stroke of luck, this blast of homecoming claustrophobia is being released for the holidays, when it may prove therapeutic. Bring the family. Or, better yet, leave them.