Blood Ties, Cutting Some Deep Wounds

Just a little family infighting: Nicole Kidman, left, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as rivalrous sisters in
Just a little family infighting: Nicole Kidman, left, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as rivalrous sisters in "Margot at the Wedding." Jack Black, right, plays their feud's ringleader. (Photos By Ken Regan -- Paramount Vantage)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"Margot at the Wedding" is for those who couldn't get enough of the dysfunctional family conflict in Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale."

"Margot" exudes the same wickedly compelling pugilism as the 2005 film, as lovers and family members circle one another, searching for vulnerable openings. We're caught in the guilty pleasure of watching full-on, sleeves-rolled-up conflict. The damage may not be physical, but we appreciate how devastating those virtual body blows -- and life itself -- can be.

It's something of a refreshing thrill to watch Nicole Kidman (Margot, one of two bickering sisters at the heart of this story) doff that marquee likability for down-and-dirty scrapping. Never was she so unlikable, and we love her for it. It's dark fun, also, to see Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pauline, the other sis) use that muttery edginess to deliver lethal jabs of her own. And finally, there's that damn-the-torpedoes excitement of Jack Black, playing Malcolm, a charismatic ne'er-do-well who stokes up the siblings' long-standing rivalry.

As Margot, Kidman is an emotionally brittle fiction writer in New York City who decides to end years of hostility with Pauline by attending her sister's wedding in the Hamptons. Despite her misgivings about Malcolm, an unemployed musician, she travels north with her teenage son, Claude (Zane Pais). But no sooner has she arrived when her irascible streak and barely concealed resentments rise to the surface.

Margot is soon trading poisonous subtext -- if not outright invective -- with everyone. Pauline confronts Margot for her arch manipulations, which she has endured since childhood. Claude berates his mother for her inconsistencies. Malcolm, acutely aware of Margot's disapproval, wrestles some shrubbery into submission in futile rage. Margot even picks a fight with the neighbors. And Margot's visit may not be as nobly motivated as she implies: Dick (Ciar¿n Hinds), the man with whom she's cheating on her husband (John Turturro), just happens to live a mile away from Pauline.

If this scenario smacks of French movies of the early 1970s or Bergmanesque chamber pieces (in which everyone yells beastly things to each other by the summerhouse), that's because those old-world films are near and dear to Baumbach's heart. As in "Squid," his semi-autobiographical account of growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, the characters in "Margot" are embroiled in the angst-filled messiness of life, and their own personal torments. ("I hate myself when I'm with you," Margot tells her husband at one point.)

To this, Baumbach adds his own American postmodern touches: Young children speak in direct ways about the sexual attractiveness of the grown-ups around them; there's talk of autism and psychotropic meds at the dinner table. Claude even asks Margot: "Are you stoned, Mom?" And he doesn't mean it ironically.

There's more to "Margot" than neo-European touches and domestic sturm und drang, however. Call it the philosophical satisfaction of ringside viewing. Perched safely away from these psychic tussles, we're free to indulge in our own recognition game. We're reminded of the brutal ways we often treat those close to us, as we scratch and scramble for our own happiness. And we can relate to the occasional moments of levity and amusing utterances that can lighten even the darkest moments. "Margot" doesn't offer entertaining escape from life, it prompts us to acknowledge its tragicomic weirdness.

And it's nice to enjoy a thinking person's cinema without subtitles.

Margot at the Wedding (91 minutes) is rated R for profanity and sexual content. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, E Street Cinema and the Cinema Arts Fairfax.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company