“I can’t say I have a whole lot of hope for the whole thing,” says Margot (Nicole Kidman). She and her barely adolescent son Claude (Zane Pais) are on their way to her old childhood home in the Hamptons, the train chuffing as they alternately gaze out the window and look at one another. Her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) now lives at the house with her fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black), their impending nuptials indicated in the Rohmeresque title, Margot at the Wedding.
Margot’s sense of foreboding is mostly right. Claude soon finds himself in a maelstrom of adults and kids all acting like kids, competing for attention and resenting one another. His perspective more or less grounds Noah Baumbach’s latest investigation of long-festering family dysfunction (see also: The Squid and the Whale, same story, different festering), and so his shifting impressions of his mother, aunt, and Malcolm — as well as Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross) and the teenaged housekeeper Maisy (Hallet Feiffer) — tend to shape yours. Frequently looking to his mother for guidance, he’s more often than not disappointed. A successful New York-based writer, Margot’s vision is shaped by a peculiar self-interest: she sees herself as a perpetual victim, and blames most everyone else with a keen passive aggression.
In part, Margot’s foreboding is a function of her own troubles: her own marriage, to Jim (John Turturro), is in trouble, and if she hasn’t yet revealed this to her son, Claude worries. Repeatedly left to hover in doorways or approach Margot gingerly, Claude appears attuned to her swinging moods. “When you were a baby,” she tells him, “I wouldn’t let anyone else hold you. I think maybe that was a mistake.” With no possible right response, Claude listens and looks. He’s her project before he’s his own person.
Brittle and indignant, Margot’s tough to like. As she and Claude settle in at the house, she barely notes her past for him, though every room is suffused with it, and every interaction with Pauline resurrects it. The sisters recall their shared childhood in abrupt terms: memories of their other sister Becky’s rape and their father’s abuse make them smile vaguely, and sometimes laugh out loud, sharing a secret joke that no one else could possibly get. Much like Claude, Pauline appears alternately eager for Margot’s approval and resentful that she needs it.
Malcolm, sometime music critic, generally unemployed, is an instant source of tension. These days, says Pauline, “Music’s officially a hobby, he’s painting now.” she smiles, hard. “He’s incredibly smart, maybe too smart. I don’t know. We’re doing incredibly well.” Margot hardly needs to say anything, but apparently, she can’t help herself. “He’s not good enough for you,” she tells Pauline. “He’s so coarse. He’s like the guys we rejected in high school.” (Pauline hasn’t yet told Malcolm that she’s pregnant, but she does tell Margot, initiating further tensions all around.) Malcolm is so utterly foreign in the sisters’ rarefied world, his blunt energy is almost appealing. In a moment of panic, he confesses, “I haven’t had that thing yet, where you realize that you’re not the most important person in the world.” Neither has Margot, of course, though her fiction — about broken families and layers of pain — suggest she’s worked something out.
Though Pauline wants to believe her relationship with Malcolm is the real thing, she worries that her own insecurity and loneliness make her impossible to love. The fact that she and Margot haven’t spoken for years and are only now attempting to reconcile doesn’t help her self-esteem, since Margot’s very presence immediately puts her back into a fretful and secretly competitive little sister mode. A game of croquet reveals Margot’s dark side (“This is so stupid! This is why I hate games. I hate what it does to me,” she tells Claude, by way of explanation). “Have you ever seen your mother climb a tree?” Pauline asks, challenging Margot to show off her childhood talent. The film cuts quickly, the camera tilted up to show her scrambling up branches, then looking down at the family, peering into the sunlight, far below. Near the top, Margot stops, panicked. And then you get it: the sisters have played this scene before. Pauline calls the fire department, narrating for Claude as they await the rescue.
Such tension between public and private displays shapes various sex scenes as well. Claude’s emerging interests are titillated by Maisy, slightly older and prone to push buttons. “Your mom is hot,” she tells him. “I’d do her if I was gay. I might even though I’m not, if she came on to me.” The cut to Claude’s face during this “kids only” discussion hints that such fannish gushing isn’t exactly news, even if he’s not exactly comfortable with it either. Sex between Pauline and Malcolm is “spontaneous” (“Let’s fuck,” he suggests) and loud enough that Margot hears it from her bedroom.
And it turns out that Margot is having a weird, predictably self-destructive affair with another writer, Maisy’s bully of a father, Dick (Ciarán Hinds) — which implodes during a public reading of her own work at a local bookshop (she’s arranged to have a professional engagement in addition to coming for the wedding, another not-so-subtle manipulation of Pauline’s feelings). Serving as her interlocutor, pressing her for answers as to what scenes “mean,” Dick is so plainly mean and competitive that he makes Margot look relative authentic and sympathetic. Still, she can’t just be vulnerable or exposed. She explains her own desperation by matching it to what she perceives as Pauline’s: “We’re at that age when we’re becoming invisible to men,” she tells Pauline, “If a guy wants to fuck us, it’s very tempting.”
You might wonder how Margot and Pauline have come to their impasse, at once hyper-articulate and mutually disconnected. But Margot at the Wedding doesn’t resolve as much as it devolves into a series of arguments and dire revelations. Each is well acted but their sheer number is eventually crushing. When Margot decides to send Claude off alone on a bus (he’s supposed to meet Jim in Vermont), the boy’s simultaneous reluctance to go and desire to trust her is heartbreaking. That it’s captured in a few moments when he and his mother are finally not talking, offers a kind of hope after all.