It’s another tale of self-absorbed East Coast intellectuals and their emotional blindspots. It’s contemporary, but you’d hardly know it: Baumbach and cinematographer Harris Savides (‘Elephant’, ‘Zodiac’) shoot in a direct, washed-out fashion that places the film mid-Atlantic in the late 1970s or early ’80s and gives it the look of light-polluted snaps that have been rescued from a drawer.
And that’s exactly what this drama feels like: moments of intimacy uneasily revealed for our pleasure. Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a New York writer whose marriage is on the skids and heads to the coast with her young son, Claude (Zane Pais) to visit her fragile, near-estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Her reasons are muddled. There’s an imminent wedding: Pauline is to marry overweight, useless Malcolm (Jack Black) whose chief skill is spending an entire day writing letters to papers. But Margot is also planning to take part in a bookshop Q&A hosted by an old flame, Dick (Ciarán Hinds).
Family isn’t a happy thought for these rarefied folk. Fireworks start to smoulder slowly as soon as Margot walks through the door of Pauline’s house. Hang-ups, rivalries, skeletons and demons emerge. The narrative style is effective: short, sharp scenes which lunge us into the action and haul us out quickly. Like Margot, the language is arch and self-possessed. ‘What was it about dad that had us fucking so many guys?’ Margot wonders.
Even her son Claude, who looks 11 or 12, is the sort of kid who tells his mum, ‘I masturbated last night.’ These are horrible people. There’s a wild accusation of paedophilia at one point but really none of these adults should be let anywhere near children. As in ‘Squid’, it’s the kids who look sane.
Kidman pulls off the same mix of frosty and floaty that Laura Linney adopted for ‘Squid’. She is good as the unlikeable Margot – as is Leigh as Pauline, a damaged soul putting on a front. But our interest in a growing supporting cast waxes and wanes. Black isn’t up to scratch; his acting is shallow. There’s a rising air of melodrama (something which one of Baumbach’s inspirations, Eric Rohmer, would always avoid) and some duff lines too – not least the one about adults soiling their pants.
As with ‘Squid’, Baumbach’s interest in families – a distinct Baumbachian sort of family – is acute and his observations often painful and delivered with a dry wit. But there’s less humour and more hysteria in this clasutrophobic chamber piece that wavers between being utterly fascinating and utterly annoying – and is more interesting as a series of encounters than a satisfying whole.