Moderately successful novelist Margot Zeller (Kidman) has taken her son Claude (Pais) to sister Pauline’s (Leigh), who’s about to marry drifting artist Malcolm (Black). While relations appear cordial, it becomes clear, as the wedding looms, that Margot’s prime talent is for upsetting people.
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Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to 2005’s critically acclaimed The Squid And The Whale sees the writer-director return to the themes of fractured family relationships, emotional frigidity and barely concealed jealousies that he previously addressed to such painful - and often painfully funny - effect. So, three years on, it is with some anticipation that we approach Margot At The Wedding - and yet The Squid And The Whale remains the more mature, rounded piece.
There is still much to admire in Baumbach’s film. As he proved with Squid, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter enjoys an arch appreciation of human weakness, positively revelling in his characters’ shabbier instincts. Placing them in relentlessly uncomfortable contexts - and what better setting for potential disaster than a family wedding? - he again delivers the perfect, pithy dialogue which so impressed in the past.
In novelist Margot (a perfectly cast Nicole Kidman), Baumbach has created a magnificently icy, manipulative protagonist (or more accurately, antagonist): a woman so self-centred and apparently unfeeling that she can leave no relationship unspoilt. She successfully snipes at her younger, flighty sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh as the title’s bride), casually flirts with men she barely has an interest in, and even exploits the anxieties of her devoted young son (an exceptional debut from Zane Pais). Within this troubled family, resentments, far from being buried, are set at a constant simmer, and the wild, windswept backdrop serves to accentuate the characters’ increasing isolation.
Margot is an interesting character - her motivations remain intriguingly oblique - the talented supporting cast are impressive and the will-they-won’t-they-wed plot, although nothing new, offers Baumbach a wealth of opportunities to pick at their collective wounds. So why the reservations? Simply that where Squid balanced its characters’ less appealing traits with humour and empathy, here there is very little to like in any of the central roles - with the exception of Pais’ nuanced, quietly heartbreaking Claude.
The result is a rather hollow affair, the film’s keynotes confusion and inevitable disappointment, making for a draining experience. There is no doubting Baumbach’s craft and talent, yet equally it is impossible to escape the fact that at times this is a film to be endured, rather than enjoyed.
A sharply observed but bleak examination of family dysfunction, anchored by solid performances.
Reviewed by Liz Beardsworth