Being related to Noah Baumbach must be tough. After using many details of his own parents' divorce in 2005's The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach's latest film Margot at the Wedding is about a writer who has used her sister's problematic relationship as the basis for her work. That's just one of the revelations that comes to light during the tension-filled weekend on which Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is due to marry Malcolm (Jack Black), and Pauline's sister Margot (Nicole Kidman) is the catalyst for most of the excruciating moments. Unfortunately, it's pretty excruciating for the audience too, with Baumbach allowing his characters take digs at each other incessantly, and while there's much to admire in Margot at the Wedding, it's a really hard film to like.
When Margot and her androgynous teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) arrive at their old family home for the forthcoming celebrations, she hasn't spoken to her sister in years, after the story inspired by Pauline's marital strife appeared in The New Yorker. The siblings try to put all of that behind them for the sake of the wedding, but Margot doesn't make it easy. She can't stop herself from voicing her disapproval or making barbed comments at every opportunity, even picking up on flaws in Claude, who seems to have an unnaturally close bond with his mother ("When you were a baby, I wouldn't let anyone else hold you" she tells him, "I think that was a mistake"). As Margot wanders around sowing seeds of discord among her immediate family, other destructive elements begin to creep in from the fringes of the story. She rekindles her on-off affair with fellow writer Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds) while her estranged husband (John Turturro) arrives in the hope of patching things up; and she insists on riling the Deliverance-style family of weirdoes next door with whom Pauline and Malcolm have already been squabbling. All of this plays out in the shadow of a rotting old oak tree, which looms over the movie like a huge, clumsy metaphor. Inevitably, when everything comes to a head, the tree falls on cue.
As in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach builds the drama around a prickly, condescending writer – Jeff Daniels' Bernard Berkman in that picture, Margot here – but the earlier film was a little softer in its approach, allowing us room to develop some empathy with the children who acted as our guide to their dysfunctional clan. Baumbach doesn't give the viewer any such respite in Margot at the Wedding, and instead we are thrown into the middle as this collection of equally unsympathetic characters take turns sniping at each other. One of the chief criticisms levelled at Margot at the Wedding has been the accusation that its characters are too unlikable to be worth watching – and it's a criticism that holds water – but it's not the film's chief drawback. There's nothing wrong with unlikable characters, but they have to be interesting characters, and Baumbach has failed to provide figures that meet either description.
We don't gain any insight or understanding into Margot at the Wedding's characters; the lead character starts the film as a selfish, passive-aggressive bitch, and that's pretty much how we view her in the last scene too. None of the other characters seem to develop in any convincing or compelling ways either, and when the backbiting and caustic remarks fail to deepen our sense of the people involved, it simply comes off as a shallow freak show, with all of the bitterness on display there simply for our entertainment, not our edification. Baumbach does draw some superb performances from his actors, with both Kidman and Leigh excelling (Jack Black is the exception, stretched beyond the limits of his abilities), and when he does find the right note – which he occasionally does – Margot at the Wedding works very well. But there's no sense of balance here, and the harshness of the characters' interactions with each other loses its edge when almost every scene is pitched at the same level.
The thing is, it's really disheartening to criticise a film like Margot at the Wedding because in theory it's the kind of film I want to see more of. It's a personal, unashamedly intelligent picture aimed at adult audiences, and it refuses to compromise itself in an attempt to win the viewer's approval. I'd certainly take a film like this – flaws and all – over something as bland and safe as the broadly similar Dan in Real Life; but Margot at the Wedding is perhaps too uncompromising for its own good. I couldn't find a way into the drama, and after 90 minutes of rather uninteresting pettiness, the film just finishes, declining the audience of anything like catharsis or insight. Noah Baumbach is a director who wears his influences on his sleeve, and one can find traces of Bergman, Rohmer, Cassavetes and Woody Allen in his latest work; but those directors were rarely accused of being as self-involved, opaque, and unnecessarily cruel as this.