It's a weird thing to praise a person for, but with his fifth feature film, Noah Baumbach has become America's preeminent cinematic misanthrope. I mean this as a compliment - art needs misanthropy, someone to act as a corrective to all of the lumpy humanism out there, if it is done well and honestly. With Woody Allen content to oscillate between amusing mediocrities and British thrillers, and the indie hipsters more concerned with establishing smug superiority over freakish caricatures of humanity, it's been a long time since there has been anybody whose métier has consisted primarily - exclusively! - of realistically unpleasant people behaving in realistically unpleasant ways.

The writer-director has always shown a tendency towards this, although it wasn't until The Squid and the Whale two years ago that his love of human weakness and pettiness really began to flower. Still, that film - which at least pointed in the direction of familial love, albeit in a distant and corrupted way - has nothing like the cataclysmic awfulness of the characters in Margot at the Wedding, in which nearly every incident is born from one person trying to assert dominance over someone they theoretically love.

That doesn't sound like the stuff of a fun evening at the movies, but what keeps the film from treading into sour vindictiveness is how fully the characters are developed. They are unquestionably movie people, not human people, but they are somehow recognisable anyway, as reasonable exaggerations of a kind of human behavior.

The characters in question are Margot (Nicole Kidman), an author of short stories, and her somewhat androgynous pubescent son Claude (Zane Pais), who travel to Margot's childhood home in the Hamptons to visit her estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on the eve of her wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black), an unemployed man of vaguely-described writerly talents. Despite and because of her crumbling marriage to Jim (John Turturro) and her nascent affair with fellow writer, and Pauline's neighbor, Dick (Ciarán Hinds), Margot takes it upon herself to convince her sister that this marriage is ill-conceived in the extreme, and to generally levy criticism against anyone who will stand in one place long enough.

It's not, as such things go, a particularly original scenario, owing debts to Bergman, Cassavetes, and Rohmer, but it is played well within its familiar template. Much like he did in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach eschews invention for precision, capturing these unique figures in this specific situation. It is sadly the case that Margot at the Wedding lacks the emotional grandeur of the director's last film, although the reason why isn't terribly hard to understand: Squid was by all accounts a pseudo-biographical work, and its teenage protagonist Walt was a surrogate for the filmmaker. It might be a little simple to say that the new film is not as urgently personal and therefore less intense, but it's hard to discount that as a factor. Moreover, while Walt was a jackass - he engaged in much the same emotional torture as Margot and Pauline do - he at least provided a consistent and occasionally sympathetic access point for the audience. This work has a clear protagonist in Margot, but she is not so effective an entrance into the story, and none of the other characters have the right POV to fully pull us in.

Leaving that aside, the film works very well, just not at the masterpiece level of its predecessor (I hesitate to compare it to Baumbach's debut, Kicking and Screaming, which I find too personally resonant to consider it objectively). Unsurprisingly, this is due to a cast in peak form, although it is surprising that "peak form" can still be used to describe Kidman. Actually, this is one of her finest performances in years, not perhaps because of the way she transcends her limitations as an actress, but because of how the film exploits those limitations. It's much like watching Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story: an actress noted for her frigidity and mannequin-like perfection playing a frigid mannequin of a character. All the mean-spirited (and sometimes accurate) things people say about Kidman are present in Margot, an overly-literate, contemptuous, emotionally empty figure. The actress does not run from this perception but embraces it, making the character altogether believable.

For the rest of the cast: not a false not among them, although due to her role's size Jennifer Jason Leigh (the director's wife) is easily the standout. Watching Pauline and Margot spar - that is to say, the actors playing them - is uncomfortable in the extreme, and somehow exciting.

Baumbach has historically avoided calling attention to the visual elements of his films, directing the camera with skill but avoiding editorial imagery - he is much more concerned with choreographing the delicate interactions of his cast. But he has also shown a consistent ability to record specific places in exacting and highly suggestive detail, not unlike his sometime collaborator Wes Anderson although without that man's fetish for whimsy. Margot at the Wedding is not an exception - the family home is captured in messy exactness, and the backyard where the bulk of the action takes place is in every way the product of the people who live there, with an iconic (and overtly symbolic) tree - but he adds one tiny, important detail: Margot's bright pink hat, omnipresent in the advertising, and one of the very few colored objects that is not an earth tone or the blue sky. It's a quiet indication of Margot's vitality and alienness that will become increasingly significant as the plot winds on, slowly - very, very slowly - stripping away the calloused exterior she projects, although the film stops short of giving her a proper moment of catharsis.

Yet we, the audience, still get a kind of catharsis, although it is small and not overly optimistic. In the end, Margot has overcome one and only one of her many biases and petty grievances, with the thin suggestion that she might yet overcome another, but it is tremendously moving despite its small scope. In life, unlike in the movies, we don't really have arcs, and we don't get big moments where we reconcile all the awful things that we do and are done to us, but fleeting half-measures of self-awareness are available to us. Not many people in life are anything like Margot and her family, I hope, but she is only an extreme reflection of the unpleasantness we're all capable of; that she makes one tiny step in the direction of redemption, because it is pragmatic rather than dramatic, is much more inspiring than if the film had ended with an absurdly comprehensive festival of closure. Perhaps they really are human people, after all.