There's a defining scene in Margot At The Wedding, Noah Baumbach's unsparing follow-up to The Squid And The Whale, where a prickly author (Nicole Kidman) blows up at her generally good-natured husband (John Turturro) for an act of kindness to a stranger in need. She feels guilty for not caring, and she despises him for his decency, which deepens her self-loathing all the more. This sort of ugliness surfaced in Squid, but it was frequently leavened by comedy and a hint of nostalgia, and it was never as raw and unvarnished as it appears in Margot. The sophistication of Baumbach's writing recalls Eric Rohmer—whom Baumbach seems to acknowledge with the title, the seaside setting, and by casting his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a character named Pauline—yet Margot has a kitchen-sink realism that's genuinely unsettling, like a John Cassavetes movie populated by the hyper-articulate. If nothing else, Baumbach deserves credit for refusing to cozy up to the audience.
With shades of Squid's mother-son dynamic between Laura Linney and Jesse Eisenberg, Kidman and her teenage son Zane Pais head to the Hamptons to attend her sister's wedding. Though the siblings are somewhat estranged, Kidman arrives to show her support, but that does nothing to quell her judgmental nature or stop her from sabotaging the marriage before it ever gets off the ground. Kidman isn't happy that her sister (Leigh) has settled for Jack Black, a not-so-loveable schlub who doesn't have a job, spends full weeks writing responses to articles, and keeps his mustache around for comic effect. Leigh quickly falls into a familiar self-destructive pattern with her sister, while Pais and Leigh's like-aged daughter Flora Cross become collateral damage.
Without imposing much structure, Baumbach offers up an undigested lump of misery that's difficult to process, but also uncompromising and true, with the specificity of great fiction. In a moviegoing culture weaned on films that do everything they can to win viewers' favor, Margot At The Wedding counts as a bracing, even disturbing experience. Baumbach doesn't seem to care whether people like his characters; he merely wants them to be seen for who they are, warts and all. Kidman's character, in particular, speaks her mind with such a shocking lack of empathy that she's like an emotional terrorist, one blithely unaware of the wreckage she's causing. Baumbach perhaps doesn't go far enough in deciphering what it all means—aside from years of future therapy bills for his teenage surrogate—but it stings hard nonetheless.