Watching Noah Baumbach's new movie is like wandering into a family gathering, where there's an unspoken rule that everyone behaves as petulantly as possible. It is articulate, beady, vicious, seldom funny and almost entirely charmless. The tale unfolds of two sisters meeting up after a long estrangement, and by the end you wonder if an even longer one might have been advisable. Margot (Nicole Kidman), a short-story writer, has taken her teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) back to her family home on the East Coast, where her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is about to marry an unemployed and muddle-headed artist named Malcolm (Jack Black). That they plan to celebrate their wedding beneath a rotten old tree that will soon be cut down suggests the hazardous nature of their union.
And even if it didn't, Margot is very quick to dispense her own poison, telling Pauline that her fiancé is unworthy of her and passing on inappropriate secrets to young Claude. Soon enough, we see them for the brittle, angry, competitive people that they are, first in innocent things – Margot climbs up the big tree, then can't get down – and later in more serious delinquencies. Pauline accuses Margot of plundering details of their family history for her fiction, and gradually the atmosphere of recrimination and self-loathing mounts to toxic levels.
The sisters have never learnt to edit their inner voices, and everyone gets caught in the crossfire. "Malcolm was fondled by a babysitter," Pauline announces. "Just use that information however you want," replies Malcolm. Far worse is Margot's treatment of her son, coddling him one minute and cruelly belittling him the next. It was brave of Kidman to choose to play a character whose interfering, manipulative personality has apparently no redeeming features at all.
Watch the trailer for 'Margot At The Wedding'.
Brave, but not enjoyable. Baumbach is retracing the familial fractures he dramatised so brilliantly in his previous work The Squid and The Whale, only this time we look in vain for signs of humility or humanity. Even Jeff Daniels, as the pompous egomaniac father of that film, earned himself some pity. Here, it's not simply a case of being unable to "sympathise" with the characters. Baumbach hasn't explored or developed them properly; by the end, they have learnt nothing of themselves or each other – they are exactly the same.
There's also a sense in which they cling to their misery, as if it somehow defines them. At one point, Pauline shouts at Malcolm, "I just need you to be on my side. I don't need you to make it better." That's a depressing line. Compare this with another recent anatomy of rivalrous siblings, Tamara Jenkins' The Savages, which examined similar feelings of resentment yet drew something tender and truthful from their conflict. With this lot, you just want to scarper as soon as possible. The murky-brown look of the film – shot by the usually excellent Harris Savides – gives an edge to its already wintry mood. Dramatically and visually, there's no relief to be had in this self-indulgent downer.