Despite its titular allusion to Baumbach’s buddy Wes Anderson—really, outside of The Royal Tenenbaums, when was the last time you heard the name “Margot”?—Margot at the Wedding owes more directly to the films of Woody Allen, though to the sort of Woody Allen picture that isn’t very popular; Margot… is Baumbach’s Interiors, his very own wealthy/WASPy family drama set in the country. (There’s also a central character reviled by her family for, in part, turning their private lives into thinly veiled fiction, à la more popular Allen vehicles like Hannah & Her Sisters and Deconstructing Harry.) The film, with its surfeit of Serious Squabbles amongst kinsfolk, comes close to self-indulgent territory, and in the spirit of the Bananas-loving public who didn’t understand Woody’s stab at Bergmanesque solemnity, you want to take Margot‘s director by the shoulders, shake him, and say, “lighten up, Baumbach!”

That’s not to say that the film is entirely devoid of comedy; the young Zane Pais and the rest of the kids have their share of very funny scenes, proving, when considered with the performances of Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline and the other youngsters from The Squid and the Whale, that Baumbach is particularly adept at writing for and directing young people. But rather than stick to what he knows and what he’s good at, he unfortunately gave into the irresistible temptation to work with Nicole Kidman, who isn’t as deft in handling his particular brand of comedy and its obligatory delivery style; Kidman may be one of our most notable performers, but she, as was on display in Bewitched, is not our most capable comedienne. And why put Jack Black in a movie, as Kidman’s brother-in-law-to-be, if you’re just going to cast him against type as a dour depressive? Between spots of inspired amusement, including a punchline about punching people, Black’s performance feels artificial otherwise, like a manic comic actor consciously and conspicuously playing himself down. (That’s not to say I miss Black’s usual consciously played-up mania, but pitched somewhere in the middle he’s like baby bear’s porridge—just right.)

Baumbach’s films have always felt imitative, right from his debut Kicking and Screaming, which easily evoked Whit Stillman, right down to the casting of Chris Eigeman. But nevertheless, in fairness, he has always managed to craft his films with a unique voice; that is, Margot at the Wedding may recall Woody Allen—with nods to Mike Nichols in a silent underwater plunge and even John Boorman, presumably, with a backwoods family of frightening mountainfolk—but it’s not exactly derivative, just…reminiscent.

Kidman stars as the eponymous Margot, a cold, controlling and caviling Manhattan mother, and the wedding is her sister’s, taking place at their (upstate? Long Island?) childhood home where the engaged-to-Jack-Black sister, Jennifer Jason Leigh, is living.

“I thought she wasn’t speaking to you,” Pais asks his mother, Kidman, in reference to his Aunt Leigh.

“No, no,” Kidman answers reassuringly, before adding, “I wasn’t speaking to her.”

Margot is superbly characterized by Kidman—what she lacks in comic skills, she makes up for in dramatics—in cooperation with Baumbach, with lines like, “watch my jacket!” selfishly spoken to her son during a bit of horseplay, or “I don’t really listen to music anymore,” meant, of course, to clue us in to her frigidity, both emotional and sexual. (Though Margot speaks and is spoken of as being sexually active, the only sex we see her engaged in is masturbation, and it’s unsuccessfully short of climax; sex pops up in the film mostly as an external threat, showing up in peepholes, Polaroids and surreptitiously stashed pornography as well as being manifest in nymphet neighbors.)

Margot is haughtily dominating, even lecturing strangers on a forest trail about proper parenting in addition to trying to break up her sister’s upcoming marriage—when Kidman complains that Black is driving too fast, Leigh notes, “Margot would insist on driving if she knew how”—but at the same time she pushes everyone away: her husband, played briefly by John Turturro in an endearing and forbearing turn, and even her son, whom she cruelly criticizes at one point for, essentially, hitting puberty. (“You used to be rounder,” she tells him accusatorially, tears in his eyes.) She needs to be in charge, but she doesn’t seem to want anyone around of whom to be in control.

Margot at the Wedding, like a great Woody Allen movie, is full of characters psychoanalyzing one another to avoid confronting themselves. “Pauline has transferred all her stuff on to me,” Kidman charges of her sister, not realizing, or admitting, that she, and every other damn character, is doing the same thing. Unlike a great Woody Allen movie, though, there’s no sympathetic anchor, or at least someone alluring, holding Margot at the Wedding down. Margot, in her middle age, has turned into a mean person, and is destroying the people, her family, around her.

Baumbach buttresses that theme with symbols, including a tree on the estate of the girls’ childhood home that’s rotting at the roots and killing the vegetation around it; it falls over, of course, at a climactic moment. (It’s unfortunate, however, that by that point, rather than wishing the characters had gotten out of its way, I was hoping for the whole odious lot to get smushed underneath it.) In a culture and a presidential race in which “family values” are trumpeted as an essential component to a functioning democracy, Margot at the Wedding rejects that sort of sloganeering by exposing the animosity that often characterizes the bonds of family. Sure, no one loves you like your family does, but no one has the capacity to hate you quite that much, either.

Grade: B

Lions for Lambs Poster Release Date: November 16, 2007 (limited)
Rated: R for sexual content and language.
Running Time: 91 min.
Cast: Zane Pais, Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Studio: Paramount Classics
Official Website: MargotattheWedding.com

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