This film is director Noah Baumbach's similarly themed follow-up to The Squid and the Whale which also tackled a dysfunctional, unhappy family and the fallout when their desires and familial resentments collide. He also directed Kicking and Screaming (2005) which now seems an aberration in light of these two films.
Here, the successful and spectacularly unhappy New York writer Margot Zeller (Nicole Kidman), travels to her family home for the prospective wedding of her estranged, slightly offbeat sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), with Margot's son Claude (the charming newcomer Zane Pais) in tow.
Margot has unexplained grievances against Pauline and seems determined to undermine the whole venture. Pauline is flighty, emotional and a little enthralled with her more successful, more beautiful sister. Margot quickly sizes up Pauline's fiancé Malcolm, the unemployed artist cum failed musician (Jack Black), and finds him wanting. He is simply not good enough for Pauline. Malcolm too appears under her thumb despite her coldness and rude behavior. But it's not just Malcolm.
Everything disappoints or alarms the acerbic Margot when she returns home. Margot insists Pauline has changed the family home to its detriment. She tells her son, the sweet-natured Claude that he has changed: he lacks manners, is embarrassing to her, smells offensive and is lazy and disrespectful to her sister. Margot cavorts with a male friend in front of Claude suggesting that she is having an affair. She tactlessly urges friends to consider that their son is autistic although the couple insists he has been tested. She seems unable to control her unpleasantness and selfish behavior.
As the wedding approaches, this odd configuration of personalities flails and struggles. Unpleasant, possibly violent, neighbors threaten the outcome of the wedding day and physically threaten Claude and Ingrid, Pauline's teenage daughter. The tree in the backyard is a bone of contention for them and must be cut down before the wedding. Margot appears on the verge of leaving her husband. An indiscretion on Malcolm's part with the babysitter Maisie (whose father is consorting with Margot) nearly ends his relationship with Pauline.
Despite the raves for The Squid and the Whale, the ennui of the educated upper middle class is only of limited interest to me but Kidman is always a revelation as an actor. She is utterly convincing as a brittle, self-absorbed narcissist who torments her son, betrays her husband (John Turturro), alienates her sister and almost sabotage's Pauline's marriage. The American director Mike Nichols has said that the mark of a great actor is that you always believe that they are just playing themselves on screen and this, I think, is true of Kidman.
Both films tend to have a washed out quality, pictorially, but the chemistry between Kidman and Leigh holds the film together for me. Some reviewers have expressed annoyance at the various neurotic characterizations ("a circus of family neuroses and bad behavior that perhaps a therapist could make sense of better than Noah Baumbach can" said one while another opined this: "a hugely pretentious, ugly and annoying follow-up" to his first film) but that's not what troubles me.
I think it's the sense of not knowing why these unhappy people are the way they are. I felt the same way about the father figure Jeff Daniels and other characters in The Squid and the Whale. It's not that it wasn't interesting to watch; it just felt so superficial and mysterious ... it's as if the director knows the secret of their unhappiness but won't reveal it to the audience or maybe he’s hoping we’ll figure it out on our own.