“Mom and me versus you and Dad” is the first thing we heard in The Squid and the Whale, but Noah Baumbach’s latest is not just Margot against everyone. Not that she doesn’t try: the Manhattan author’s underminer machinery soon whirs into action at her sister’s coastal house, formerly the family homestead, whose yard and beloved oak tree will host the wedding... if everyone makes it alive. Pauline (inverted Jennifer Jason Leigh) is marrying potbellied “letter-writer” Malcolm (Jack Black), basically Jack Black if he hadn’t made it (reduced to prefacing his ironic mustache). After sisterly estrangement, Margot (Nicole Kidman, scaling down well) has shown up, sans husband, with diffident androgyne son Claude (Zane Pais), though a local bookstore appearance with a writer lover suggests typically double-edged motives.
The candid Baumbach touch makes more of what’s, at base, a rather standard, holiday-movie premise, a visitor returning to a packed (Northeast) house and catalyzing the family/spousal sagas. Eric Rohmer and his fine-tuned emotional-behavioral miniatures are the obvious touchstone: the thorny byways and cul-de-sacs of love, resentment, despair and fraught dialogue that distills so much. But the biggest Rohmerian quality is Baumbach’s willingness to probe questions of love and family (sibling reconciliation, irredeemable schlubhood, intimate-reckless parenting, tolerable cruelty) and leave them essentially unresolved and so all the more recognizable.
Shot with a brined-over look by Harris Savides, Margot is jagged, sharply edited, cathartically funny and in some ways more tumblingly dense than even the 80-odd-minute Squid. Things fly apart, but then why does Margot amount to something weirdly optimistic? Or is that miserably trapped.