The latest movie from The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, Margot at the Wedding plays like America’s Sweethearts for the The New Yorker-set. On a crumbling coastal home reminiscent of Grey Gardens, prodigal daughter Margot (Nicole Kidman) returns to witness or perhaps stop the marriage of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) to good-for-nothing wannabe artist Malcolm (Jack Black). She drags along her sensitive son Claude, whose sexual awakening among the young women there (cousin Ingrid, babysitter Maisy) is complicated by the strange sexual bond with his own mother. As the movie progresses, we find that Margot is not only sexually immature, but also vindictive and manipulative.
Margot is a novelist, and she tries to keep her autobiographical stories at arm’s length. But when she is confronted with the depth of her characters’ cruelty, she must also confront her own. Nicole Kidman doesn’t do much with this terrifically complicated ice queen, but neither does any actor in this movie shed light on his or her urbane archetype. Baumbach is clearly drawing from a deep well with these characters, but we never quite see into the gloom.
The Squid and the Whale did coming-of-age better, and it did marital strain better. I wish Baumbach had focussed the movie more on Margot, and on the wake of her emotional hurricane. As it stands, she’s mean, crazy and too close to her adolescent son not to be institutionalized.