As the ambivalent title guest in Noah Baumbach's pleasurably painful domestic drama Margot at the Wedding, Nicole Kidman is so unlikable as to be spectacular. Margot is a short-story writer of no small acclaim, steeped in the privileged neurosis and petty, self-important competitions of the upper-middle-class New York intelligentsia, and she's as obtuse about the hurts she inflicts on those closest to her as she is quick to feel real or imagined slights to her own quivering ego. Historically, her younger sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has borne the brunt of Margot's manipulations, so that now the two women are estranged. But at the prospect of Pauline's impending marriage to Malcolm (Jack Black), a blobby underwhelmer with the unbecoming moustache to clinch the deal, Margot bestirs herself. Restlessly unhappy in her own marriage, she traipses out for the event to the Eastern shoreline family childhood home now occupied by Pauline. She also brings her teenage son, Claude (Zane Pais), a sensitive kid whiplashed by his parents' battles, his mother's gusts of selfishness.
Really, the casual emotional gouging and bruising that takes place in the course of this ostensibly happy occasion has every reason to be unbearable, especially in Margot's capacity as a Monster Mother (let alone a Sadistic Sibling) who likes to think she's being sophisticated and honest in her conversations with her son and her sister. But as he demonstrated two years ago with The Squid and the Whale (and in early form in 1995 with Kicking and Screaming), Baumbach possesses an infernally charming skill at leavening discomfort with wit, and a superb ear for the rhythms of chattering-class psycho-destruction. (Far be it from us to assume Baumbach's autobiographical familiarity with the species, but let's assume it anyway.) He's become a specialty master at blurring the line between the dysfunctionally appalling and the articulately entertaining.
So here's Margot, reenacting ancient battles with Pauline (and, indeed, with everyone, since she's incapable of not rubbing a little shmutz on all who cross her path). If the title Margot at the Wedding and the name of Margot's sister elide in cineaste memory into Pauline at the Beach, well, Baumbach's allusion to the great French New Wave master of the conte moral, Eric Rohmer, is intended. Like his idol, Baumbach specializes in looking at people who think they want one thing but really want another, and then to set them talking. Certainly, Margot is all about self-delusion and loose chunks of ensemble doing-and-yakking. Episodes (a family meal, the cutting down of a tree, Margot-the-author's publicity appearance at a local bookstore) don't so much link as accumulate like perfectly chosen souvenirs of an aesthetically high-minded, emotionally screwed-up traveler. And while the adults claw with manicured talons, the young people, including a fine Halley Feiffer as a neighborhood Lolita and Flora Cross as Pauline's prematurely mature daughter, jockey for footing in a perfectly captured teen world of unstable hormones.
Which brings us back to Kidman, who really is sensational here. She's fearless about being ''ugly,'' fully in touch with her character's voracity, and transformed into Margot with a commitment we don't tend to see enough from the striking star, even as she works tirelessly to update her stardom. Kidman's commitment to working with adventurous filmmakers has always been one of her loveliest attributes, but something in this adventure has truly set her free. The result, for the Kidman curious, is exhilarating.
For Jennifer Jason Leigh fans, meanwhile, the ease that the characteristically taut actress evidently feels working with Baumbach her husband is evident in her own notably unguarded performance, her buoyancy. There'd be no itchy, scratchy Margot without a Pauline to torment, and Leigh imbues the role that of a woman who loves and hates her maddening, famous-author sister in equal, crazy-making measure with soulfulness, and also with a spine. Some of the movie's sweetest, realest moments are those when the two siblings fall about on the couch laughing, their blood bond thickened by shared history.
Can lives of such advantage be so awful? Can the filmmaker ever go home again? The parents and children, lovers and cheaters who wound one another here are a glossy subset of Leo Tolstoy's universe of unhappy families, each unhappy in its own way. We enjoy, and count our blessings that we are not Margot's kin. A-