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‘Margot at the Wedding’: More cruel than funny

In this claustrophobic homage to the French New Wave, Baumbach depicts sibling rivalry not as something fragile and evolving but as blood sport.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale,” writer-director Noah Baumbach created characters who were smart, witty, sad, vulnerable and, above all else, laceratingly verbal.

With “Margot at the Wedding,” he’s got the laceratingly verbal part down, but he left out all the rest.

In this claustrophobic homage to the French New Wave (the title seems to be an allusion to Eric Rohmer’s “Pauline at the Beach”), Baumbach depicts sibling rivalry not as something fragile and evolving but as blood sport.

Nicole Kidman stars as Margot, an accomplished Manhattan short-story writer who travels with her adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), to the East Coast island where she grew up for the wedding of her estranged hippie-chick sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Disapproving immediately of Malcolm (Jack Black in a rare dramatic role), the slacker artist Pauline is about to marry, Margot self-righteously plants seeds of doubt in her sister’s mind, only she does so in passive-aggressive fashion.

She’s probably onto something: Malcolm does seem rather useless and whiny. He’s constantly crying or worrying or complaining about something. But the crucial thing is, Margot is fully aware of the damage she’s causing and feels no remorse. Meanwhile, her own marriage (to an underused John Turturro) is in trouble, as she’s having an affair with a fellow writer (Ciaran Hinds).

Even if Margot hadn’t begun her own campaign of sabotage, everything seems to go wrong for these people. They fight with the neighbors, the family dog gets lost, the car breaks down in the forest, a giant tree collapses on the wedding tent. All these misadventures are more pathetic than funny, though.

While some of his observations here and there are amusing for their piercing truth — New Yorkers especially will respond to locals-only remarks about Williamsburg and Stuyvesant High School and the like — Baumbach has otherwise created a scenario in which everyone is selfish, irredeemable and unlikable, except for young Claude, who merely seems confused.

Baumbach gets a broader range of emotion out of Leigh than we’re used to seeing from the often understated actress — maybe because she’s his wife, and because she helped him tinker with the script, she feels more comfortable than ever. And Kidman is fearless as always in going to the ugliest places required for the performance.

But too often, the dialogue just seems forced, a stunning development from Baumbach considering the intimate grace he found with “The Squid and the Whale.” Either it’s too weird, as in Malcolm’s dissertation while dining al fresco about the virtues of sitting down to pee, or it’s cruel, as in Margot’s matter-of-fact slam that she and Pauline used to reject guys like Malcolm when they were 16.

All of it seems intended to jolt us on some level, but it’s too contrived and lacking in humanity to have any real impact.