"Margot at the Wedding" is a monster movie, but not the kind we're used to. The monster here wreaks psychic carnage, spills metaphoric blood, snaps symbolic limbs. The monster is a Manhattan novelist come to visit her family; she's played by Nicole Kidman and she eats her young.
After the measured triumph of "The Squid and the Whale," writer-director Noah Baumbach might have been expected to try something different - a musical, maybe; they're all the rage. Instead, he has delivered another lethal little comedy about educated people doing horrible things to the people they profess to love. Baumbach's digging himself into a rut, but the dirt's still fresh, and he exhumes one ugly surprise after another. Indulgence is called for.
The film's set in the Hamptons, in an old family weekend house now inhabited by Margot's sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Pauline's getting married to a good-hearted loser named Malcolm (Jack Black, who else?), and she just wants to get through the weekend without being judged, found wanting, and executed. It's the pipe dream of anyone with a demon in the family.
Margot doesn't approve of Malcolm - how could she when everything about him offends her finely tuned aesthetic? She has arrived from New York in the latest stage of a perpetual crisis, fleeing the husband with whom she's bored and towing her 12-year-old son Claude (Zane Pais).
Claude is lank-haired and smart and just beginning to outgrow his worship of her. Their relationship parallels that of Jeff Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg in "Squid," but the psychology is maternal this time, softer and more dangerous. How do you survive a mother for whom everything is a well-phrased disappointment? "You used to be so gorgeous," Margot murmurs, running a hand through Claude's locks.
It takes a special sort of actress to play this character without audiences burning down the theater. Kidman performs a kind of magic act: She wholly inhabits Margot's monomania while allowing us the space to laugh and to cringe. Those pale blue eyes have rarely seemed less forgiving, more blind to those around her, yet she and Baumbach are merciful in keeping Margot life-size. All it takes is one observation from a cruelly macho writer (Ciaran Hinds) with whom she's flirting, and the lady's entire universe comes undone. As horrid as it is to be related to Margot, it's infinitely worse to be her.
"Margot at the Wedding" is a broader work than Baumbach's last movie, and it's funnier, too, even as you gasp at the misbehavior. Black walks a cautious line between his usual hambone act and something more attuned to character: Malcolm's a need-monster like Margot, but he isn't very good at it, and the failure renders him endearing.
The movie's main event is the emotional wrestling match between the sisters: slow but steady, with occasional spasms of catharsis. Pauline's is the drama of the sibling who's less articulate, less talented, but who has realized after years of work that that's not her fault and that she may even be the lucky one. (Viewers who relish literary gossip may feel the jaded, joyful sensation they're at a Minot family reunion.) It's sweet relief to see Leigh play a woman of average neuroses after some of her early roles; she finally gets to paint a miniature rather than attack the whole canvas, Pollock-style.
Droll, awful life lessons are learned over the course of "Margot at the Wedding": Never accuse a man of cheating while he's holding a chainsaw; trees climbed in youth should not be climbed in adulthood. Trees in general acquire heavy metaphorical meaning here - Margot's up a tree in more ways than one - and the odd, slightly icky sexuality that gummed up "Squid" is present here, too. Baumbach's still so close to his raw material that he can't control it all.
And control may be the point: Trapping his own demons in the glass vials of art, Baumbach dramatizes events with sharp, wordy imagery; on one level, he's still writing more for The New Yorker than for us. Yet his ordinary monsters feel more honestly confronted than Wes Anderson's fey Salinger cutouts or Woody Allen's nattering New Yorkers. Baumbach has no interest in filmmaking style: He just sends in the handheld camera to record horrible acts committed in the name of love and self-absorption. The blood he draws is real nonetheless.