You can’t help asking just what Noah Baumbach’s upbringing must have been like. His breakthrough movie, 2005’s The Squid And The Whale, pitilessly dissected the divorce of a highbrow Brooklyn couple, seen mainly through the eyes of their confused, distressed teenage sons – and was by all accounts largely autobiographical. Now comes Margot At The Wedding, again constructed around a fractured family – but this one’s so viciously dysfunctional as to make The Squid’s clan look like the Waltons.
Nicole Kidman, superb in ice-bitch mode (think a dressed-down Mrs Coulter), plays the eponymous Margot, a New York writer whose marriage is falling apart. Along with her teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) she shows up unexpectedly for the wedding of her estranged sister Pauline ( Jennifer Jason Leigh) to unemployed artist Malcolm (Jack Black at his most slobbish). Within moments of her arrival, the sisterly hugs and kisses have given way to razor-edged comments aimed at each other and anyone else unwise enough to get in the way. “He’s like guys we rejected when we were 16,” is Margot’s reaction to her prospective brother-in-law, and things go downhill from there.
In no time, enough skeletons are tumbling out of closets to stock a fair-sized bone-yard. (“What was it about Dad that had us fucking so many guys?” muses Pauline.) Nobody, least of the all the kids, is spared the emotional fallout. Margot, it transpired, only showed up because ex-lover Dick (Ciarán Hinds), whom she’s hoping to get it back on with, lives nearby. And so it goes.
Nobody in this film is likeable, barring perhaps the unfortunate Claude, who is already well on the way to becoming a seriously screwed-up adult. Pretty it’s not – but Margot At The Wedding is written, filmed and acted with such cool accomplishment that you can’t stop yourself watching.
Emotional car-crash cinema at its best, packed with characters you'd hate to meet but who are riveting to watch. Baumbach's barbed cynicism won't be to everyone's taste, but those still suffering the aftermath of a family Christmas will grin in grim recognition.