Back in 2005, Stephen King named The Squid and the Whale his favorite movie of the year and in the process called Jeff Daniels' character "an ego-driven monster who demonizes and nearly breaks his children's hearts and minds." So now Noah Baumbach gives us Nicole Kidman as the bride of the monster in his funny, abrasive new movie.
Like all great screen monsters, the brilliant thing about Kidman's Margot is that she doesn't think she's a bad person; travelling to her estranged sister's wedding to a cuddly slacker, she does what she does out of a misguided combination of well-meaning affection, obliviousness, and well-educated condescension. It's an excellent performance and a good reminder of why Kidman is such a good actress after so many clunkers. Kidman has always been too much in her own head to be a Hollywood sweetheart, like Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon, but as her career proceeds she might still be a colder Vanessa Redgrave.
Watching Margot at the Wedding is like watching a slow-motion car wreck, with Margot at the wheel (a metaphor that gets literalized towards the end of the movie) Of course, everyone that Margot comes in contact with is teetering on the verge of neurotic collapse to begin with, needing only a brief comment or two to topple. Watching a group of flawed upper-middle-class people bicker and destroy each others' lives might sound like worse torture porn than the Saw movies, but it works because of the strong performances (especially Kidman, Leigh, and Zane Pais as Kidman's son), but more importantly because Baumbach infuses the demolition derby with the kind of wry humor that you can only get from having been in these situations, realizing how awful and absurd it all is to begin with, the knowledge that ties that bind one to their family can just as easily be anchor chains dragging a person down. There's bitter truth in this movie, leavened by the comedy of experience. I liked it a lot.