Noah Baumbach’s entry into the dysfunctional-family sweepstakes is a successfully depressing affair that has some genuine laughs to maintain interest while the fake relationships that dominate every scene leave the viewer as estranged as the characters.
The tightly edited feature (Carol Littleton) centres around two sisters. Nicole Kidman plays Margot—a short-story writer who barely covers the family secrets in her alienating prose; son Claude (newcomer Zane Pais) takes being a “mamma’s boy” to the nth degree as they share their own secrets (ranging from surprise pregnancy to his body odour and masturbation schedule). As sister Pauline (Mom gave her the family home …), Jennifer Jason Leigh is on the verge of her second marriage, which appears to be the balm for the feuding siblings to bury their long-standing hatchets and become the “you’re my best friend” that—at some point in the murky past—they must have been.
Malcolm (Jack Black, with much of the best comedy using a mix of John Candy and John Goodman in the delivery) the blushing groom—unemployed writer/painter—is soon caught in the middle of the dueling girls as the ghosts of fuckings past, present and future come home to roost.
A heady dash of Deliverance peppers the wee plot in the personage of the neighbouring Family Volger (Michael Cullen and Enid Graham as the Hicks “R” Us parents who delight in disemboweling a soon-to-be-roasted pig; Sophie Nyweide as the outwardly angelic daughter and Justin Roth who most certainly shows his fatherly devotion when he attacks the deodorant-lite Claude and bites into his neck with enough gusto to pull Dracula out of his crypt: only the banjo/guitar duet was missing).
The overpowering metaphor/plot point is a huge tree whose unstoppable roots threaten the Volger vegetable patch, adding fuel to that ongoing feud. The wedding is set to take place under the largely-bare branches, giving a symbol of hope; Margot is dared to repeat her childhood feat of climbing the aging arbour and, with the courage that only white wine that must be drunk with ice cubes can bring, dashes up the trunk, hoists herself to the best view around only to become “stuck” and in need of burly firemen to rescue this lost cat from her pride.
Not surprisingly, it seems that Margot’s sudden about-face with Pauline might have been further inspired by a “book conversation” at the nearby library and a romp-in-the-hay with one of her many exes (Ciarán Hinds serves up a wonderfully-slimy characterization of Dick Koosman, a fellow author who pens historical fiction and beds hysterical women). No worries, the entire family makes the trip to the stacks (where the use of hand-held microphones does serve to amplify Margot’s growing distress but are totally out-of-place for such a small gathering) only to be confronted with the accusation from her recent paramour that, perhaps, her stories prove she’s become her father. Yikes! Pass the pills (Pauline), more therapy, please—Margot.
The nuptials are soon put on the rocks by one more bit of infidelity that, er, raises its ugly head just as the long-loved tree is about to be felled. The dramatic irony now floods the screen and its inhabitants.
Baumbach has captured the rivalry of the two sisters beautifully but can’t weave the other threads into a cohesive whole that satisfies all of his multi-layered narrative. Still, as the Greyhound leaves the final frames in its dust, the notion of another chapter (Will Claude ever learn more than how to make pop-ups?), like the potential of a bicker-free family dinner, is a happy thought. JWR