Those looking for the poignancy and humor of writer/director Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale will find little of either in his latest, Margot at the Wedding. While The Squid and the Whale was a brutally honest depiction of a disintegrating marriage, it also offered moments of genuine tenderness. If there's tenderness in Margot, it's steeped in ulterior motives and self-deception: This is not a feel-good film.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are sisters, alike in bone structure and temperament, and reunited after a long estrangement by Pauline's impending marriage to schlubby, unemployed Malcolm (Jack Black). Margot is unable to suppress her disapproval of the union, and for Pauline's life in general—though we soon learn that Margot's own marriage is crumbling, that she's having an affair, and that her son, Claude (Zane Pais), has a preternatural watchfulness that does not reflect well on her parenting style. Margot is, in short, in no position to pass judgment on others; yet she freely does so, with the entitled air of an older sister treating her own hang-ups as logical and defensible while lambasting the weaknesses of others. Baumbach's focal point in dealing with all of this drama is a large tree in the family's yard, which the neighbors insist is rotting and should be cut down. Much is made of the metaphor: Sex, competitiveness, frustration, and resentment simmer beneath the surface of this family tree.
While it's hard to like Margot's characters, it's impossible not to marvel at Baumbach's perceptiveness: His understanding of the tiny, petty cruelties people inflict on one another is total, and he has an uncanny ability to show us the chasm between the way his characters see themselves and the way others see them. The first two-thirds of Margot at the Wedding are a brilliant character study and a subtle, flawless depiction of family dynamics, and I wish Baumbach had left it at that. Unfortunately, toward the end, Baumbach's focus shifts from character to plot: The pace accelerates, the engaging sensation of voyeurism recedes, and the film's ending is a punishing exercise in waiting for the resolution of narrative threads we don't ultimately care about.