TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Again fearlessly navigating those perilous waters known as family dynamics, filmmaker Noah Baumbach has followed up his acclaimed 2005 breakthrough "The Squid and the Whale" with another wryly observed, giddily cringe-inducing, bracingly original winner.
Where the previous film took its cue from Baumbach's own upbringing, "Margot at the Wedding" probes the terminally dysfunctional relationship between two sisters, played, without a safety net, by Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
The two actresses do some of their best work here, while Baumbach gives further evidence as having one of the most original--and affecting--comic sensibilities in the business.
In the wake of its Telluride and upcoming Toronto Festival screenings, the Paramount Vantage release should gain some serious awards season traction ahead of its late fall arrival in theaters.
From the title to some of the plotting, there are affectionate nods in the direction of Eric Rohmer's "Pauline at the Beach" to be found here, but the tone is unmistakably Baumbach's own.
Kidman's Margot Zeller is an outspoken New York-based short-story writer traveling with her newly adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais) back to her old family home, where her estranged sister Pauline (Leigh) is about to be married.
Never one to mince words, Margot makes it very clear to anyone who'll listen that she doesn't approve of Pauline's fiance, Malcolm (a very amusing Jack Black), an aspiring musician and artist who seems intent on making a career out of unemployment.
Although technically more of a free-spirit, Pauline proves to be as weighted down by all the family baggage as Margot, and their proximity in the same geographical space can lead to no good.
In short order, the pair succeeds in playing everyone off of each other, and by the time the dust clears, there's a tangled mess of busted relationships and exposed secrets left behind.
But in spite of all the ugly chaos, at the end of the day, family is still family, and "Margot at the Wedding" manages to conclude with a faint glimmer of something resembling guarded optimism.
While many maintain there's truth in comedy, writer-director Baumbach operates under the contention that there's comedy in truth.
No matter how horrible or painful life can get, he realizes there's often an absurdist twinge of irony lurking in the sidelines.
Brilliantly assisting him in bringing it all to the forefront are Kidman and, especially Leigh, who render brittle, hilarious yet moving performances.
Kidman's never better than when she plays darker types, like in "To Die For" or "The Others", and in Margot she has found a character that gives her permission to let unapologetically loose while still retaining some of that trademark vulnerability.
Leigh, meanwhile, gives one of the best, and certainly most intriguingly complex performances of her career, as Pauline, a perennial lost soul who, despite all the friction, still idealizes her sister as a potential best friend.
Together, the two egg each other on to delicious heights and the rest of the cast gives them the appropriate space while still turning in their own, astute performances.
Black, while recruited for comic relief purposes, nevertheless puts his own, unique spin on Baumbach's dialogue, while Pais as Margot's in-the-throes-of-puberty son, gets that alienated awkwardness down effectively.
Also good are Ciaran Hinds as Margot's writing partner and not-so-secret lover; Halley Feiffer as his Lolita-in-training daughter and John Turturro as Margot's spurned husband.
Behind the scenes, director of photography Harris Savides, lends the autumnal Eastern seaboard location a slightly grainy, home movie feel, neatly signaling the less-than-idyllic events to come.
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Director-writer: Noah Baumbach
Producer: Scott Rudin
Director of photography: Harris Savides
Production designer: Anne Ross
Co-producer: M. Blair Breard
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Editor: Carol Littleton
Margot: Nicole Kidman
Pauline: Jennifer Jason Leigh
Claude: Zane Pais
Malcolm: Jack Black
Jim: John Turturro
Ingrid: Flora Cross
Dick: Ciaran Hinds
Running time -- 100 minutes
MPAA rating: R