Writer and director Noah Baumbach's uneven "Margot at the Wedding" is a marathon talkfest about the reunion of two sisters whose lives are at loggerheads.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a respected short-story writer who travels as a surprise guest with her pubescent son Claude (Zane Pais) to the family's East Coast compound to attend the nuptials of sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a teacher, and her artist fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black).
It's instantly clear why these women are estranged. Pauline is like a superannuated hippie while Margot is so tense and affected that, at times, you have to remind yourself she's a writer and not a Broadway diva.
Upon arrival, Margot, high on wine and marijuana, goes after Pauline for her poor choice in men. Referring to Malcolm, she says, "He's like guys we rejected when we were 16," and she's not entirely wrong. Malcolm is such a slacker, and Pauline is so engaging, that you can't help hoping things bust up fast.
As "The Squid and the Whale" also demonstrated, Baumbach is most in his element when he is playing distraught family members off against one another. But in "Margot at the Wedding" he often mistakes argumentation for drama. As the women pile on their grievances, I felt I was trapped in an interminable therapy session.
Not content to focus on the sister's spats, Baumbach also loads up the session with a surplus of additional grievances. Margot tries to bar her unhappy husband (John Turturro) from attending the wedding while also attempting to hook up with Dick (Ciarán Hinds), a former boyfriend and fellow writer who is even more imperious than she is. Meanwhile Dick's teenage daughter (Hallet Feiffer) is coming on to Malcolm. And did I mention that Pauline is pregnant?
Perhaps if the characters were all equally interesting this psychodramatic gridlock would be more enthralling. But the roles, along with the performances, are highly variable in quality. Leigh (who is married to Baumbach) has a sporty intensity and Kidman is not as glacéed as usual. This is one of her least studied performances. But Baumbach rarely lets the scenes between the women play out satisfyingly – the sequences are either too abrupt or endless. And Black, doing a variation on his trademark shtick, comes up short in the meatiest role he's had to date.
"Margot at the Wedding" is obviously a movie made by smart and talented people but sometimes you can outsmart yourself.