Margot at the Wedding

Starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Rated R

If you think Nicole Kidman is icy and aloof as lady villain Mrs. Coulter in the alterna-world fantasy The Golden Compass, wait ’til you see her in Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach’s noiselessly explosive domestic drama, which couldn’t be more stranded in the bitter real world.

Kidman’s Margot is selfish, vain, indifferent, uninvolved as a mother, and seemingly determined, in an unthinking, inattentive way, to sabotage everyone around her. It’s almost as if her casual destructiveness were an accidental byproduct of her own self-involvement.

Thing is, Margot ain’t happy. Or perhaps she’s only happy, and then only briefly, when she’s spreading her misery around, like a particularly virulent contagion. Margot’s carelessness is Kidman’s genius here. The actress makes no attempt to ingratiate herself with us, which ends up making Margot thoroughly unlikeable but totally fascinating, in a rubber-necking kind of way.

Margot couldn’t care less what we think, and I suspect that Kidman might feel much the same way. She stalks through space here in a way that suggests she is utterly unconcerned with the usual niceties of an actor looking to connect with the audience. But she connects with Margot the character in a way that makes her so completely real that we can’t look away.

The wedding of the title is that of Margot’s sister, Pauline, though Margot arrives in their unnamed New England seaside home town, where Pauline still lives in the family house, as if she’s set her mind to stop the nuptials from ever happening.

We’re never quite sure what the rift was between the sisters that estranged them — perhaps they are too dissimilar to really have much to do with each other. Pauline is, seemingly, as freespirited and relaxed as Margot is tightly wound and fiercely in control (or so she thinks).

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s peculiar brand of actorly snippiness works perfectly here — her Pauline seems the unavoidable reaction to her sister, chipperness crashing against barely masked hostility. And next to her Pauline, Jack Black, in a surprisingly effective seriocomic role, makes Malcolm a manic smudge of excess personality, an artist who hasn’t yet found his art.

Scratch their surfaces, and neither of them are any more pleasant than Margot, so part of the malicious pleasure is in how effective Margot’s provocations become.

During the wedding weekend, long-held secrets will be unraveled and new ones uncovered, and family history will come quietly out to taint the present. Seemingly random subplots concerning nasty neighbors and confused children will go unresolved. But they are all branches on a tree, like the crooked old thing in the yard that those next-door neighbors demand be cut down. Its roots are intruding on their property, they claim, as if it weren’t the nature of trees to have an influence far more widespread than its apparent size.

Through the movie looms Malcolm’s chore, chainsaw at the ready, to at least trim it down to a manageable and less dangerous size. And we know that chore cannot possibly end well, as neither can any attempt to get under control the branches of family or the tendrils of messy life.

Film Trailer