Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. With Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Zane Pais, Jack Black and Ciaran Hinds. Distributed by Paramount Vintage. 1 hour, 33 mins.


(mature situations, sexual candor, emotional violence). Playing at: The Ritz Five and Showcase at the Ritz Center/New Jersey.

Fasten your seat belts and check the airbags.

The defining metaphor of Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach's dysfunctional-family seriocomedy, is a battle-scarred Volvo with faulty brakes.

It's an apt symbol for this family of emotional roadhogs who don't know how to stop, and if they did, wouldn't have the equipment to do so without leaving skid marks.

For some time, Margot (Nicole Kidman) has been estranged from her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). And with good reason. It seems that Margot, a writer of cult repute, appropriated Pauline's marital woes for a short story that helped end the latter's first marriage.

Now that Pauline is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black), a self-loathing artiste of no particular metier, Margot is returning to the family's island beach house for the nuptials. And also to mine new material. And also to see if she can go 2 for 2 in destroying her sister's liaisons.

Kidman makes Margot's narcissism both frightening and darkly funny, coddling, then castrating everyone in her orbit, from her adolescent son, Claude (Zane Pais), to her sister's intended.

Where Margot bigfoots the story, Pauline nips at her well-turned heels - the only way she knows how to slow down her marauding monster-sister. Mostly, though, as the drawling Pauline, Leigh (making her first appearance in a movie by her director husband) adopts a defensive crouch, armoring herself for Margot's next zinger.

It is a succession of skirmishes in an ongoing war that succeeds as a showcase for two memorably fierce performances, Kidman's and Leigh's, and a sensitive turn by Pais as Margot's sexually indeterminate son. As actors, they are nervy and unnerving.

- Carrie Rickey