Perhaps it’s merely a matter of gender. In his previous film, “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), Noah Baumbach told a semi-autobiographical story of a disintegrating New York family, and though the female characters were hardly insignificant, the focus was on the males—the father, a failed novelist and teacher, and his two sons; it was an insightful and piercing piece, very well acted. Baumbach again treats of a troubled family in “Margot at the Wedding,” but this time it’s the women who dominate the proceedings; there are men around, but they’re more passive and dependent. It may just be the writer-director’s inability to feel with them to the extent he did with the father and sons of “Squid” that explains why, despite a fine cast, the new film is such a dreary, indeed irritating portrait of people who never seem authentic and certainly aren’t emotionally engaging. There’s very little to celebrate in this “Wedding.”
Nicole Kidman stars in the title role as a sharp-tongued New York author of middling success, estranged from her husband (John Turturro) and interested in resuming a relationship with a well-known novelist, Dick (Ciaran Hinds), who just happens to live near the coastal village where her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) keeps the family home and is about to be married to a rumpled musician, Malcolm (Jack Black). Margot, who hasn’t been on speaking terms with Pauline for some time, shows up unexpectedly for the wedding with adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais) in tow, though as it happens she’s also scheduled a bookstore signing nearby where she’ll be introduced by Dick. She immediately becomes a catalyst for trouble between Pauline (who turns out to be pregnant) and Malcolm, as well as for her doting son (whom she alternately belittles and tells secrets to), though, as it turns out, there are plenty of other difficulties involving Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) and sultry Maizy (Hallet Feiffer), Dick’s daughter, who’s grown close to the family, and the nearby neighbors, a bunch of apparent ruffians who’re feuding with Pauline and Malcolm over a tree on the property line.
Obviously all this sets the stage for plenty of bickering, revelations and assorted arguments, drawn by Baumbach and his cast at a very high pitch. Kidman is all brittle self-centeredness as Margot, and Leigh alternates between droopy and overwrought as Pauline. In a crucial role, Pais is bland as the youngster who serves both as observer and recipient of his mother’s emotional turbulence. As for Black, it’s nice to see him stretching, but he doesn’t really escape the part of comic foil here. It’s particularly sad to watch pros like Turturro and Hinds wasted in throwaway roles. The picture places all the melodramatics within a parched, unattractive visual environment, thanks to the drab, bleached-out, often jittery cinematography by Harris Savides.
It won’t spoil much to reveal that, despite the title, the promised nuptials never come off in “Margot.” But the movie is still like a lot of wedding receptions—filled with annoying people who dredge up past problems and scrape at old wounds, all of which might mean at lot to them but are of little interest to the rest of us. A few people may leave elated, but most will simply be tired.