Everyone is on the brink of something in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding — marriage, divorce, puberty — and by the time, late in the film, when one character huffs, “I’m out of breath,” you’ll have a reasonable idea of how she feels. The movie begins and ends in motion, first on a train and later on a bus, and it rarely slows down in between. Even when it confines itself — as it does for most of its brief running time — to a creaky oceanfront home on an unspecified stretch of what looks to be Long Island, Margot maintains its nervous rhythm, as if the characters were collectively jittering their legs underneath the table. Which they may well be doing. Baumbach has taken the style he first deployed in his 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale — a loose hand-held camera, scenes that pick up and break off in the middle of an action — and gotten even bolder with it. The result is a uniquely fractured intimacy that suggests one of those home movies that jump ahead wherever the cameraman decided to hit the pause button. Except that here the cameraman is the gifted Harris Savides, whose 2007 résumé alone includes Zodiac and American Gangster, and whose dim, naturalistic lighting gives the entire film the look of late-afternoon sun poking through musty curtains.
The wedding is the second for Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has a daughter from her first and a sister, Margot (Nicole Kidman), whom she hasn’t seen much in the intervening years. Fleeing from her own collapsing marriage back in Manhattan, Margot arrives for the weekend ceremony with her gangly preteen son, Claude (Zane Pais) — it’s them we see on the train at the beginning — and some oversize emotional baggage in tow. At first, the reunion is distant and cool, but then, during a short, remarkable scene in a cramped upstairs guest room, the sisterly bond returns. Baumbach excels at writing the stop-and-go dialogue of people who know each other so well they can complete each other’s sentences, and his actresses — both of whom turn in some of the best work of their careers — use those half-thoughts and pregnant pauses to affect an unusually convincing sense of the two characters’ shared history.
A published fiction writer with a habit of mining relatives’ lives for material, Margot is the classic overachiever, accustomed to being the center of attention, quick to dispense unsolicited advice (on subjects ranging from child rearing to personal relationships) and ill-equipped to receive it. Kidman, costumed in Diane Keaton–ish earth tones and scarves, her alabaster features dulled by a tangle of dark hair, plays the role with the air of a beautiful person trying to look less beautiful lest she not be taken seriously. Leigh, meanwhile, who can sometimes work too hard at digging under the skin of a character, wears Pauline like a comfortable old slipper, the self-conscious girl-next-door who’s never stopped measuring herself against her more successful, more glamorous sibling. She’s radiant, in her dowdy, I-just-threw-on-this-sweater-and-don’t-mind-that-yesterday’s-dishes-are-still-in-the-sink way.
Together again in the house where they grew up, Margot and Pauline reminisce, dish dirt on an absent third sister and ultimately goad each other into combat. Actually, it’s Margot who does most of the goading: She scarcely misses an opportunity to express her disapproval of Pauline’s choice of fiancé — the portly, unemployed musician Malcolm (a very funny Jack Black) — or to spill the beans on a secret told to her in confidence. Meanwhile, Claude enters into an awkward flirtation with his cousin, receives blunt hygiene tips from a sultry teenage babysitter (whose father may be having an affair with Margot) and, in a scene that recalls the public-masturbation episodes from The Squid and the Whale, holds on to a bitten-off fingernail as a souvenir of his rapidly changing self.
Margot at the Wedding may have a Rohmeresque title and a rotting Chekhovian tree in its backyard, but the characters are pure Baumbach — bright children discovering that their parents are imperfect people, and bright adults overly disposed to self-analysis and emotional exhibitionism. Judging from the divisive reaction to the movie since its first film-festival screenings this summer, you either recognize that world or you don’t — or, even more likely, you do and wish you didn’t. The Squid and the Whale could be a bitter pill to swallow too, but it had nothing on the scene here where Margot looks at Claude and says with an astonishing mix of candor, tenderness and cruelty, “I see how much you’ve changed.”
It’s moments like those that mark Baumbach as one of the most honest and astute chroniclers of family — by which I mean family for better or worse — at work in movies today. It’s also what has led some to label him a misanthrope. (Just last week, the New York Press’ Armond White dubbed Baumbach “the Lars von Trier of Brooklyn and the Hamptons,” and he didn’t mean it as a compliment.) True, Baumbauch’s comfort zone is the audience’s discomfort. But what gives his films their levity and comic gracefulness is the affection for human foibles that shines through at every turn, the way that — even in its darkest moments — Margot at the Wedding gives its characters (and us) something to laugh about. “It’s hard, I think, to find people in the world you love more than your family,” says Pauline at one point, which doesn’t exclude the possibility that we might sometimes loathe, taunt, envy and betray those same people. Like Jean Renoir before him, Noah Baumbach knows that everyone has his reasons.
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING | Written and directed by NOAH BAUMBACH | Produced by SCOTT RUDIN | Released by Paramount Vantage | ArcLight Hollywood, The Landmark, Playhouse 7