In Noah Baumbach's heavily heralded previous picture, The Squid and the Whale, a father defines a philistine as someone who "doesn't care about books or interesting films and things," to which his son calmly replies, "I'm a philistine." To be honest, I'm with the kid especially if you insist on regarding Baumbach's own movies as "interesting."
Squid/Whale anatomized the divorce of a Manhattan literary couple, with particular emphasis on its effect on the children. Baumbach's new movie, Margot at the Wedding, studies a putative wedding involving an even more dysfunctional (and witless) family. Margot (Nicole Kidman, muting her starry presence, but unable to find a plausible alternative) is the literary figure here, a writer of grim stories that I'm pretty certain I'd run miles to avoid reading. She appears, glumly sardonic, at the island home of her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to witness her marriage to a slacker named Malcolm (Jack Black), who spends most of his time either bursting into tears or bursting into angry flames. The two women don't much care for each other, and various people, mostly associated with Margot a husband she's dumping, a nearby lover who turns out to be not very nice, a son who is alternately neglected and smothered are caught in their crossfire.
This is moviemaking for people who don't much like movies unless they are you know "serious." It is visually inert. It appears to be taking up small-scaled, yet emotionally resonant issues, but does not actually define them sharply or bring them to firm conclusions. It has a certain incidental inventiveness when it comes to narrative development, none of which feels organic to the story. There is for example, a rotting tree in the yard, which Margot climbs and gets stuck in (cue the fire department) and which we know, from the first time we see it, has to fall in some embarrassing way. The film aspires, I suppose, to sober Chekovian comedy could that tree analogize to a Cherry Orchard? but it is actually no more than an invitation to wallow in ill-defined neuroses. "So true, so sad," one imagines an impressionable viewer murmuring. "Let me out of here," one imagines most people saying.
Well before the halfway mark, I found my unengaged mind turning wistfully to another current film about a family gathering in a bucolic setting. That would be Dan in Real Life, in which a damaged figure, (the always excellent Steve Carell), playing a mournful widower, falls comically but painfully, in love with the wrong woman while somehow enlisting both our sympathy and our grateful laughter. It is a low-key, commercial comedy, but its people are believably eccentric instead of unbelievably nutsy, it offers an interesting twist on the basic dilemmas of romantic comedy and it finds a way of satisfying our hopes for a happy ending without descent into implausibility or travesty.
Noah Baumbach thinks he's funny, though his intermittent gags fizzle painfully. He also thinks and this is his larger sin that he is a serious fellow, which he definitely is not. He is merely unhappy in a vague and annoying post-graduate sort of way. He's the kind of filmmaker who thinks that if he sets his star to masturbating on camera, he's making a statement, when all he's actually doing is signifying the true spirit of his movie.