It's so hard to find people you love as much as your family," says Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her sister Margot (Nicole Kidman) at Pauline's Long Island home, where what's left of their estranged tribe have gathered to witness her pending wedding. These words aren't ironic as much as psychotic. Though we've known Margot for only a short time, we're left to assume that Pauline looks for her friends at asylums for the criminally insane.
A brief rundown of Margot's charms: While visiting, she causes friction with the neighbors, cheats on her husband, belittles her sister's wedding plans, betrays her confidence, bad-mouths her behind her back, steals her medication and offers these blessings about her beloved: "He's like the guys we used to reject when we were 16." Later, basking in the havoc she's wrought, she casually tells her own teenage son (Zaine Pais) that he used to be better-looking. There's no reason. When it comes to hurting people, Margot just likes to keep up her chops.
The movie is billed in trailers as a sort of comic-drama follow-up to writer-director Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale," with a droll soundtrack backing a montage of quirky lines by the characters, including Jack Black as the husband-to-be. This is just another case, however, of marketing getting in the way of the movie. Knotty and foreboding like the backyard tree that will overlook the nuptials, "Margot" is a pitiless but fascinating look at a family keeping it far too real for comfort. You may chuckle, but only uneasily, as you get to know the protagonist, her sister and the other relatives that scurry around their house of bad vibes.
Pauline inherited the home from her and Margot's mother, something the elder sister highly resents. Blessed with the humility of a princess and the tact of a pachyderm, Margot clearly sees herself, an accomplished novelist, superior to the mere mortals around her, especially her poor, misguided sister. Baumbach is especially good at upending our expectations, only gradually turning us against Margot and constantly thwarting our need to side with someone else in the story. If we side with Margot at first, it's not long before we are in Pauline's corner, and not long after that before we simply feel for the children.
Alas, even poor Malcolm (Black) gets his. A failed musician, these days he seems content to suffer looks of disdain from people like Margot. Pauline wears the pants, pays the bills and owns the house, while Malcolm -- except for the occasional call for a meager amount of upper body strength idles his time feeling inadequate.
Baumbach doesn't seem to want to let anyone off the hook, and it must have been especially difficult to resist the temptation to allow Black his usual outbursts of broad comedy. Thankfully he plays Malcolm straight. There's no mugging or pratfalls, which will hopefully show other directors that Black doesn't need those things to be interesting.
Baumbach seems to have realized, after a couple of fair but uneven starts, that to really make people sympathetic they need to be shown as little sympathy as possible. As we see, bad people keep bad friends, and you can add Margot's lover and fellow novelist, his Lolita-ish daughter and those neighbors, who look like they came down from nearby hills with eyes, to the list. The only thoroughly decent character, Margot's husband (John Turturro) arrives late and uninvited, and is quickly shooed away after rescuing a dog.
That last is an interesting bit of cinematic turnabout. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but history tells us two of the worst things a person can do in a movie is kill a dog or, if a mother, abandon her child. It would seem a fit of genius to then celebrate the latter, but just as Baumbach has us on the edge of our seats with the threat of a downer ending, he lets up.
"Margot at the Wedding" is not for the weak, but in the end Baumbach goes easy on us. Margot has a thoroughly unbelievable change of heart. Set up for a tragic fall, she lands in the safety net of an ending annoyingly open to interpretation. Does she change her ways? Who cares? The thing is, it's hard to find people in movies who are this unlovable. The shame is not that Baumbach would capture one so perfectly, but that he would let her get away. (R) 91 min. S