Noah Baumbach’s study of family dysfunction is poignant, disturbing, and more mature than his earlier film on the same theme, “The Squid and the Whale.” The greatest strength of “Margot at the Wedding” is its ability to leave the audience unsatisfied; the opening and closing scenes take place on public transportation, scenes begin and end abruptly, and though ugly emotional outbursts are frequent, the viewer gets the feeling that they are only the tip of the deep-seated resentment that simmers under every line.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) takes her son Claude (Zane Pais) on a trip to visit her long-estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black), a man she has known for only a year. Every relationship in the film is fraught with problems that gradually emerge; Margot is having an affair with her sister’s neighbor (Ciaran Hinds) and seriously considering leaving her husband (Jon Turturro), while Pauline is pregnant but keeping it a secret from her fiancé and daughter. The days leading up to the marriage quickly become a train wreck, and the children, more mature than the adults, are caught in the middle of the mess.
The characters in “Margot at the Wedding” are written and acted with brutal precision. Though everyone is pitted against each other and all the adults have hideous shortcomings, they are all vulnerable and sympathetic. Margot is gratuitously mean to everyone around her, but her pain and loneliness make her as hapless as her victims. The relationship between the sisters is touchingly nuanced; though they both describe each other as their “closest friend,” they have not spoken in years before the actions in the film. Margot and Pauline can emotionally destroy each other with a single sentence, and they do, repeatedly. Though sadness pervades the film, there is also hope; no relationship is definitively severed, and though the family has suffered devastating rifts both in the past and during the period depicted in the film, they continue to try to connect despite the pain and difficulty of doing so. Although they hate each other like no one outside the family can, they also love each other with equal intensity.
“Margot at the Wedding” has a sense of realism uncommon in film. It is shot largely in natural light, conversations do not have obvious beginnings or endings, and much of the meaning lies in what is left unsaid. Baumbach’s choice to start the movie on a train and end it on a bus suggests that the events of the film, though quite significant to the characters, are only a small portion of all of their lives; that the characters’ demons will continue to haunt them, but do not determine their destinies; that every event is transient. The script is lifelike in its tendency to reveal too much and too little at the same time; for example, masturbation comes up a few times, but the details of the circumstances that drove Margot and Pauline apart are never fully revealed.
“Margot at the Wedding” is a brilliantly executed film that, like many real-life family reunions, is alternately painful, funny, and moving. Outstanding performances from every member of the cast are the perfect complement to Baumbach’s screenwriting and filmmaking talents.