In his breakthrough autobiographical drama The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach crafted—re-staged, one supposes—a world of divorce-driven pain.
Even as the Berkman family fell apart before our eyes, unable to stop its lives from shifting irreparably, one thing was never in question: conviction. Each member was so certain he was right (and there was a she here, played by Laura Linney and she was as much of an asshole as any of the men, but Squid is a dude movie wrapped in indie paper), so sure of his intellect, of his earned arrogance, of how awesome he was. Never admitting defeat, rarely showing weakness—the father, played by Jeff Daniels, is forced into a submissive position only when he's felled by a stroke on a Brooklyn street—it never mattered to the these three, father and brothers, how wrong they were, or how they looked like dicks all of the time.
So it's an interesting prospect to see Baumbach's approach to sisters—especially since one is played by his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh—in Margot at the Wedding. For starters it is easily one of the year's best pictures, frustrating and funny and beautifully acted, shot and art-directed. For another, it makes Nicole Kidman, one of our most over-exposed, instinct-free actors, likeable and even warm, a hard task always but especially since she is in the Daniels role of Captain Asshole.
As the movie opens, Margot (Kidman) is on a train from New York City to the old family farmhouse in the Hamptons to attend the titular wedding of her sister, Pauline (Leigh) to Malcolm (Jack Black). Her pre-teen son, Claude (Zane Pais), is with her, and they appear to enjoy a familiar, especially close relationship, similar to the ones Daniels shares with his sons in Squid. There's a lot of love there, but as the film goes deeper, it's clear that the parent is not only expecting the child to deal with things beyond his maturity, but selfishly using the kid to take out some very adult frustrations. Margot turns on Claude in an instant, telling him, for instance, that he needs deodorant, and she's just as quick with Pauline and Malcolm and her cuckolded husband (John Turturro), but they are grown-ups and they can take it. Claude hasn't developed the strength required to handle his mother. But Pauline has, and it's her compelling tug-of-war with Margot that forms the core of this tough story. Whereas the characters in The Squid and the Whale, all hip 1980s Brooklynites, lashed out with abandon and confidence, no one ever calls each other out for it. Margot's cruelty is met with resistance and defence—when Pauline tells her not to tell anyone she's pregnant, and within hours everybody knows. To retaliate, Pauline lets Claude know about the unsavoury relationship his mother has with Dick (Ciaran Hinds), a writer like Margot.
But while these characters possess the coldness and arrogance of Squid, they are less sure about it. Pauline dares Margot to climb a tree in the yard. Margot does, but gets stuck. It's an apt metaphor for her life, and her son's feminine features and long hair, his very androgyny, a symbol of the same. Pauline loves Malcolm even though she knows he's beneath her; he knows this too, yet he makes out with the babysitter, who's Dick's daughter (resulting in a beautifully toned scene that seesaws between hilarity and pity as Dick chases Malcolm down a beach, then a bloodied Malcolm returns sobbing to Pauline about his mistake).
Baumbach, too, is unsure—for all the acclaim Squid received, including an Academy Award nomination, a sticking point was the sudden ending, whose only purpose seemed to be to introduce the squid and whale of the title. Margot at the Wedding ends as it began: mother and son travelling together, without any sense of closure, in a scene that will result in polarizing opinions. It's a brave stance for a maker like Baumbach, who has always wielded his smarts so defensively.
His protagonist has no clue and from the vulnerability of that rises true growth.