Jest Cause: Margot?s family jokes are couched in keeping the peace.

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Far more corrosive than his 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale, and the better for it, writer-­director Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding is an eruption of sibling hostility that gives the viewer no secure place to stand; at any moment, the lava flow could shift direction. The central relationship is between the wound-tight Margot (Nicole Kidman) and the somewhat calmer Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—sisters, “best friends,” and intimate enemies. They haven’t spoken in a while, but now Margot returns to the old family home to attend Pauline’s wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black), a painter and sometime rocker without visible means of support. A short-story writer who’s been published in the New Yorker, Margot brings along her barely teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) but not her nearly estranged husband, Jim (John Turturro). Already on hand are Pauline’s daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross), who’s about Claude’s age, and two sets of very different neighbors: the downscale and ominously hostile Voglers, who demand the removal of a venerable tree near the property line, and the Koosmans. The latter consist of Dick (Ciarán Hinds), Margot’s fellow author and not-so-secret lover, and his teenage daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer), babysitter and general object of desire. (Although she thinks it’s Margot who’s hot.) The period is not specifically defined, though much of the music—Blondie, X, the dB’s—is circa 1980. Not everything works: Black is too broad for the film, that tree is brazenly symbolic, and cinematographer Harris Savides overplays the home-movie aesthetic with underlit scenes. But editor Carol Littleton’s jump cuts are as sharp as the dialogue and ensemble performances, which are trenchant indeed. Mesmerizingly frightful, Kidman’s Margot plunders her acquaintances’ lives for fiction, hands out other people’s confidences like Kleenex, and buries an insult in nearly every remark, yet is acutely sensitive to criticism. If the easy assumption is that she’s an acid rendering of Baumbach’s mother, a writer and critic, the film contains clues that Margot is as much a self-portrait as anything. Wherever she came from, she’s as richly human as she is unforgettably dislikable.