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Margot at the Wedding (R) ***

Jack Black plays the unemployed charlatan, Nicole Kidman the woman who sees right through him. PARAMOUNT VANTAGE.
Jack Black plays the unemployed charlatan, Nicole Kidman the woman who sees right through him. PARAMOUNT VANTAGE.

By Rene Rodriguez

Bitter, brittle, condescending and petty, the titular character of Margot at the Wedding, fabulously played by Nicole Kidman, is a successful short story writer who resents other people’s happiness. She arrives at the Long Island home of her soon-to-be-married sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with all her neuroses at full tear. She doesn’t approve of her sister’s fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed, unfocused charlatan who calls himself an artist, and she has no qualms about letting her opinion be known (when she talks to Malcolm, her dislike is so intense it’s as if she can hardly bear to look at him).

Margot is married, unhappily; she has a teenaged son, Claude (Zane Pais), who adores her unconditionally, having learned how to accept his mother’s cutting expressions of love (”You used to be so gorgeous,” she tells him while stroking his hair). She has a lover (Ciaran Hinds), who is visibly growing tired of the unrelenting and unquenchable anger at her core.

But the center of the movie, which was written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), is the relationship between the sisters. As played by Leigh, Pauline is a slightly daffy but essentially kind and open woman who was always their parents’ favorite and makes no excuses for it. She knows how to deal with Margot better than anyone, having had a lifetime of practice. But in the days leading up to the wedding, the sisters’ long-simmering resentment bubbles over in ways that are profoundly painful and oddly comical.

Shot in a deliberately flat, underlit style, Margot at the Wedding doesn’t pass judgment on its characters: It observes their behavior, from the boorish (Malcolm) to the cruel (Margot), with equal incisiveness and curiosity. Baumbach never gives us a reason to warm up to these characters other than their basic humanity — they may be ugly and annoying, but they’re never monsters — and Kidman’s performance keeps you transfixed all the way through, because she delves into her character’s damaged psyche so fully, you’re constantly fascinated to see what biting, acidic thing she will say next.

When Margot uncharacteristically climbs the old family tree on a dare, the way she used to as a child, and then gets stuck atop it, a bug crawling in her ear, you can’t help but feel sympathy for her, along with a childish sense of satisfaction for watching her squirm. Isn’t that, in a way, what family is all about?