Noah Baumbach is no stranger to the strained family dynamic. In his 2005 directorial debut, “The Squid and the Whale,” which he also wrote, Baumbach dealt with the crisis of a looming divorce and the repercussions it had for two young brothers. The film’s anguish rang true in large part because the script was semi-autobiographical for Baumbach; amidst all the emotional turmoil, what survived was the fragile beauty of boyhood innocence.
“Margot at the Wedding,” Baumbach’s second feature, retreads much of the emotional territory of “The Squid and the Whale” and relishes in the same amount of narrative asides. Broken bits of subplot protrude from the greater story arc, and the main narrative is peppered with inconsequential and unexplored footnotes. If it were more focused, “Margot at the Wedding” could have been Baumbach’s dramatic triumph. However, it’s marred by unnecessary flourishes from a still-immature writer’s pen. The film is ultimately a beautiful but fractured anecdote of a film, and not much more.
In the titular role, Nicole Kidman plays a moderately successful author and mother of two who, along with her son (Zane Pais), returns to her childhood home where her younger sister is about to be married. Kidman, relishing the role of a hovering, parental perfectionist, disapproves strongly of sister Jennifer Jason Leigh’s engagement to scatterbrained starving artist Jack Black. Throw in Kidman’s own extramarital affair with the local literary savant, a family of bizarre survivalist neighbors, Pais’ puberty issues, and one ubiquitously symbolic elm tree, and you have something close to the film’s narrative.
The character dynamic, from the beginning of the film, is in a perpetual state of breakdown. Kidman finds Leigh and Black in a delicate emotional equilibrium that’s quickly thrown into disarray upon her arrival. Every conversation between the two sisters is ripe with tension, which spills over into the Leigh’s engagement, Kidman’s marriage, and the more central relationship between Kidman and Pais. The inevitable catharsis plays out against an idyllic autumn backdrop on the North Atlantic shore, a setting that Baumbach curiously doesn’t exploit as well as he might.
The cast of “Margot at the Wedding” unsurprisingly succeeds. Leigh is the perfect fit for the flighty, post-hippie who has fallen for the kooky, humorously flawed Black. Pais fits well into the role of the well-balanced, understanding child, and helps to emphasize Baumbach’s vision that, sometimes, children are the sanest of us all. Kidman, who perhaps naturally identifies with her character, is strong.
In the midst of all the terrific performances, however, it becomes glaringly apparent that the script simply isn’t up to snuff. Like his occasional writing and production partner Wes Anderson, Baumbach has the tendency to leave the story up to atmosphere rather than the plot or characters. While Anderson compensates for this by overwhelming the viewer with moving scenes of joy, sadness, and hope, Baumbach’s vision concentrates too much on characters to leave them so exposed.
The script begins to go south shortly after Kidman’s husband, John Turturro, makes an unexpected visit. Suddenly, Baumbach seems to pour every hateful word he can extract from Kidman’s character into the dialogue, rendering her no longer the frigid matron but the spiteful shrew of the story. She spews acid at everyone from her sister to her own son, seemingly devoid of compassion. The relatable qualities of her character are spoiled, and, while Black and Leigh devolve into the crazies they’re destined to be and Pais’ character is pushed more and more into Kidman’s shadow, the film becomes a confusing, unlikable mess.
The beauty that Baumbach spends the entire film trying to evoke, however, surprises the audience in the movie’s final moments. Whether this ultimately redeems Baumbach and “Margot at the Wedding” is up for debate, but, for some viewers, it may just be enough.