There's a reason pop psychologists list weddings as one of the top stress sources in everyday life. Writer/director Noah Baumbach agrees -- and never relents. Recalling his similarly acid "The Squid and the Whale," moody doesn't begin to cover the family tempest in "Margot at the Wedding."
From manic depressive and shattered to frighteningly aggressive and painfully blasé, his characters' emotions not only are on constant display but feel much more intense than those that might normally arise from long-established familial ties.
A proudly casual, successful magazine writer, Margot (a mesmerizingly heartbreaking Nicole Kidman) is direct to a fault. She'll say anything and does. Even her deflated and drained sister Pauline (a superb Jennifer Jason Leigh) has trouble pigeonholing her, asking: "Why can't she be both -- care deeply and be crazy? Do people have to be all one thing?" Certainly not; at least not here. And that's what makes this intense and talky tale of deceit, confession and searing disappointment so utterly compelling.
With her wise androgynous son Claude (an astonishing Zane Pais), Margot travels from Manhattan to what was once the family's oceanside compound to attend her oft-estranged sister's wedding. Upon arrival, she does not hesitate to make her disgust clear: She tactlessly cautions Pauline that her future husband Malcolm is "coarse" and declares Pauline far "too intelligent" for him.
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Thrown between these two fragile yet recalcitrant women, the burly, crackling Malcolm (Jack Black) seems hopelessly immature and appears to try way too hard on the emotional front; his tears look forced, his frustrations a bit childish. Moreover, he lacks any chemistry whatsoever with his betrothed.
Margot is both mixed up and oddly sure of herself. Dismissing Malcolm as "like the guys we rejected when we were 16," she assures her lost, needy sister that "stupid people get into Harvard all the time." And when it comes to passing judgment, direct yet thin-skinned, Margot can dish it out but certainly not take it, at one point reduced to pleading, "Stop picking on me everyone!" Alternately tough and vulnerable, Margot confides in her sister about failed relationships with both her husband and her son. Equally unsettled, but a tad more reflective, Pauline consoles Margot by assuring her, "We're at that age where we become invisible to men."
And how does Margot comfort the already nervous bride-to-be? She tries to talk her sister out of marrying Malcolm. The irony here: This bitterly confident houseguest is in no position to be doling out advice. For while Margot does have a husband (a warm and sincere John Turturro), he seems almost an afterthought. Margot sums up their marriage by telling the puppylike Jim, "I hate myself when I'm with you."
What makes this biting foray into the emotional underbelly of sibling distance and festering relationships so remarkable is refreshingly simple: No one holds back; everyone says exactly what's on her mind, no matter the hurt, no matter the consequences. The women are headstrong to the point of smothering; the men, secondary.
Introspective despite the emotional disconnect and tattered bonds all around him, Claude asks "Is anything real?" And without missing a beat, Margot softly tells him, "No."
After 90 minutes of raw revelations and unsolicited advice, one might beg to differ. Here, the stinging rejection and frayed nerves are all too real, almost universal. And the inevitable emotional train wreck makes them difficult to ignore.