I very much loved writer/director Noah Baumbach’s previous film The Squid and The Whale, blessed with an excellent script and superb performances all around (especially by the underrated Jeff Daniels – heartbreaking in Pleasantville, and capable of humanizing no less an icon than George Washington in The Crossing).
Margot at the Wedding features another dysfunctional family, but so spectacularly so that the characters didn’t seem recognizably human to me. I don’t think the problem is as simple as merely identifying with the particulars of their lives (abusive father, celebrity lifestyle, etc.), for I also had little in common with the family in The Squid and The Whale.
Margot (Nicole Kidman) brings her son to her family home for her sister’s Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding to layabout Malcolm (Jack Black). Pauline is the sole family member insecure Margot can physically face, which she can only manage through passive aggressive games asserting her superiority. We barely glimpse a third sister and their mother, from whom Margot literally flees. They feud with the strangely savage neighbors, providing yet another set of characters for Margot to look down upon.
Margot’s favorite pastime is armchair psychoanalysis coupled with a kind of inverse hypochondria. Obsessed with detecting symptoms of mental illness in everyone around her (the irony being that she’s often correct), she fails to diagnose herself. She’s a fiction writer whose work bears more than a passing resemblance to her family’s history. Margot’s failure of imagination amounts to a kind of theft, and is a central theme of the movie. “How much of your work is autobiographical?” is no doubt a cutting question nearly every writer (including Noah Baumbach) hears at least once a day. Margot’s lover Dick (Ciarán Hinds) even uses it as a weapon to publicly attack her. It is cruel, but in her case, accurate.