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Jack Black as Malcolm and Nicole Kidman as Margot star in Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding.”
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Margot at the Wedding

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Zane Pais, and Jack Black

Rated R

Now playing in limited release

Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” is a broad, relentless portrait of a family perpetually strained to the point of breaking. But, oddly, it never does. It is a family whose members are racked by insecurities and self-doubt; they lash out at each other in ways that are almost incomparably cruel. Yet somehow you leave the theater knowing that the characters feel deeply for each other.

Baumbach’s film seems to operate under a similar paradox. With characters that can seem almost globally unlikable and a rapid, sometimes aimless, editing style — one that is hardly concerned with tying the scenes together into a cogent narrative arc — “Margot at the Wedding” really shouldn’t work. But it does, and it’s terrific.

“The Squid and the Whale,” Baumbach’s previous film, depicted, with startling acuity, a family being severed by divorce. The film is memorable for its insight into the lives and vernacular of the overeducated and hyper-literate but also, more remarkably, into the intricacies of family. The film is largely about its protagonist, a teenage boy, coming to terms with his family, and consequently himself. Baumbach doesn’t stray too far from these preoccupations in his latest film.

The title character, Margot (played by Nicole Kidman), is a member of that particular brand of intelligentsia to which Baumbach is so perfectly attuned. She is a successful writer visiting her childhood come in order to attend the wedding of her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Margot is accompanied by her son, Claude (Zane Pais), who seems to be the embodiment of everything pubescent and awkward. Pauline’s fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), is pretty much everything you’d expect Jack Black to be. That is to say, a loser, albeit a charming one.

The characters, particularly Margot and Pauline, can claw at each other with such cruelty that they sometimes approach caricature. But it is a testament to both the performances of the actors and Baumbach’s sharp writing, that the characters remain believable. Kidman, particularly, is able to express a tremendous amount of self-scrutiny and insecurity embedded within her brutality. Margot’s family is an inescapable reflection of herself, and she cannot help being harshly critical. She is completely incapable of accepting Pauline marrying Malcolm, a man who has no discernible job and who Margot describes as “not ugly, but extremely unattractive,” because she is struggling with her own waning desirability.

The most unique, and potentially frustrating, thing about “Margot at the Wedding” is the subtlety with which it examines its characters and snaps from scene to scene. The film gradually presents a series of events and interactions that create an honest portrait of a family, but the events don’t all contribute to some large cumulative idea. Rather, they exist solely because it is the slow drip of life that shapes our families, the occurrences that don’t necessarily have a point but are most telling about who we are. It is with these disjointed, often meaningless, events that Baumbach makes us understand the family he creates. This naturalism that pervades the film is so palpable in every scene: the way people often laugh inexplicably during a fight or the way that people’s faces are often obscured in shadow even in the middle of a conversation.

Once we stop expecting anything concrete or definitive from “Margot,” it’s easy to revel in how nuanced and casual the truth that occupies the film really is. When Claude sings “Sunday Girl” in a painfully pubescent falsetto, or when Margot remarks that “stupid people get into Harvard early all the time” and wrenches every bit of humor and bitterness out of the statement, it is so deeply satisfying because it is so familiar to us. No further elaboration is really necessary, or even welcome.