Kidman plays the title character, a woman traveling with her son Claude (newcomer Zane Pais), to attend a wedding within the family. Once she arrives in town, she finds that the bride – her sister Pauline – is in a highly codependent relationship with a manic-depressive slacker named Malcolm (played with surprising depth by Jack Black).
“Malcolm’s very, very, very funny and even though he’s kind of like the bitter guy who hasn’t had a chance yet to make his mark on the world, he’s also really lovely,” says actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (who portrays Pauline).
“But when Margot arrives, the dynamic changes and Pauline starts to see what Malcolm looks like through her sister’s eyes, and that’s what changes everything.”
The events that transpire around these characters’ nuptials are so intense, they could be studied in any freshman psych class. Margot is combative one minute and needy the next. She pushes away her family with an acrid tongue, only to envelop them in loving arms moments later. This is especially true of the relationship that she has with her son.
“There’s an incredibly powerful connection between Margot and Claude, which Margot sometimes abuses,” Kidman explains. “Yet as much as she’s very tough on this child, I also wanted to show her desire to love and protect him. I think Margot is just so complex in her emotions and she doesn’t really understand them, so she’s unable to control them.”
With all of the verbal wrangling that occurs within the film, it would take a special young performer to go toe-to-toe with such accomplished talent. Pais got his big break as Kidman’s son through a family connection – his real life mother, actress Lisa Emery. She and Leigh recently appeared together in the play “Abigail’s Party.”
Leigh, who is married to Baumbach, told her director husband of this dynamic young man that fit Claude’s description.
“Zane, like Claude, was very much on the cusp of adolescence, right at the point where you become more interested in the outside world beyond your parents,” notes Baumbach. “[He] really connected to what’s going on with Claude and we knew very quickly he was the right person.”
Even Kidman agrees that one of the biggest challenges of this character-driven black comedy is the building and execution of complex relationships. She notes that she walked a fine line into believability.
“The story was so funny and has this strange, beautiful, brutal honesty to it, while at the same time bringing a strong sense of affection,” says Kidman.
“What interested me is the way these two sisters are so tough on one another, pushing each other’s buttons like crazy, and yet they love each other through it all.”
Baumbach has an exciting cinematic history of displaying human interconnection. In 1995, he made his directorial debut with Kicking and Screaming. He also led a cast of New York’s finest stage and screen actors (Eric Stolz, Annabella Sciorra) in 1997’s Mr. Jealousy. He penned The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004 and followed that up with a turn as writer/director of the critically heralded family drama The Squid and the Whale (2005).
Though his films don’t rely on the visual stylization made famous by filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Baumbach’s tone as an auteur is very similar. His movies deliver quirky characters with serious issues.
Kidman found an ally in her director: “It was very interesting because Noah’s shy, I’m shy and Jennifer’s shy so you had these three shy people who somehow had to come together and reveal an enormous amount of themselves to each other. That required a lot of trust and also some bravery.”
The end result is an American classic that could very well net this outstanding Aussie actress her second Academy Award.
Margot at the Wedding releases in select theaters Nov. 21.