In the first year of the new millennium, playwright Kenneth Lonergan made his debut as a film director with the universally praised, “You Can Count on Me”. It may indeed have been my favorite of 2000(it was officially #2 in my annual Top Ten, but, as Walter Chaw likes to say about certain past films, “it looks great in the rear view”). It received Academy Award nominations for Lonergan’s Original Screenplay and Laura Linney for Best Actress. Critics and audiences loved it, and both groups awaited what Mr. Lonergan would do next. Fast forward 11 years, and the writer/director is just getting his sophomore effort to a limited release at a grand total of two theaters. Its trip to the big screen is now infamous and legendary. Filmed mostly in 2005 with Oscar-winning star, Anna Paquin, and a couple of “You Can Count on Me” holdovers, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick(apparently a close friend of Lonergan, who reportedly forked over some of his own cash to get his buddy’s project completed). Throw in theatre actress J. Smith-Cameron(Lonergan’s own wife)as Paquin’s mother(playing the character of a renowned theatre actress). Some ingredients, huh? Around 2006, after filming is completed, the battle begins. Lonergan is supposed to deliver a maximum 150-minute cut, but he can’t seem to get his behemoth under 3 hours. Multiple lawsuits ensue, A-list editors are called upon to help him whittle it down(including the great Thelma Schoonmaker…a multiple Oscar-winning editor). Finally, after years of turmoil(and the original 2007 scheduled premiere well past)and litigation, “Margaret” hits the big screen in September of 2011—and almost no one gets to see it. Opinion is decidedly mixed. Some big city critics include it in their year-end “ten-best” lists, while others find the 2 and-a-half hour character study messy and self-indulgent. A recent New York Times Magazine article wondered if it was the unsung “best film of the decade”(it’s not), while the Times own A. O. Scott failed to recommend it while calling it “ambitious, intelligent”(it is). So, the story behind “Margaret” is even more interesting than the movie itself. But should you make time to see for yourself on your living room screen? Please read on if you are intrigued.
Lisa Cohen(Ms. Paquin)is a self-absorbed 17-year-old living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her divorced actress mother and younger brother. It’s clear that Lisa is intelligent, but that she is also spoiled in living her priviliged existence(seems Dad is a noted California screenwriter…played, btw, by Mr. Lonergan himself). While shopping for a hat, Lisa intentionally yet innocently, distracts a city bus driver(an exacting Mr. Ruffalo). The driver then inadvertently strikes and drags a pedestrian(Allison Janney, giving her all in a brutal and tough-to-watch scene)with the mammoth vehicle. Lisa runs to aid the mangled woman, who is conscious and a mix of lucid and incoherent before she ultimately bleeds to death. Lisa, already living the typical confused teenage stage of her life(exacerbated by her parents divorce, and non-presence of her working Mom), soon spins into turmoil while trying to make sense of the tragedy. She spends the next two hours entering new lives, shunning old friends and maybe destroying certain careers(more than one…and I’ll let you experience that for yourself to avoid spoilers). Lisa has promiscuous sex, becomes involved in a lawsuit against the MTA, and provokes a series of vociferous classroom arguments about America and terrorism in a post-9/11 world. She also becomes close with the accident victim’s best friend, Emily(a marvelous Jeannie Berlin)—who eventually calls out Lisa for her solipsism. And Lisa strongly clashes with her rising star Mother, especially when she introduces a new gentleman friend into their lives(an overly broad Jean Reno). Then there’s the police investigation into just how much the driver is at fault, and ultimately determining what his fate should be.
I admire the heck out of what Mr. Lonergan appears to be attempting with “Margaret”. But I would be lying if I avoided saying that his cityscaped psychodrama didn’t come off as somewhat over-baked. I mean, an emotional epiphany during an opera-house scene? Really? That’s only the 103rd time I’ve witnessed that device in my lifetime. On the other hand, I’m actually okay with his much derided drawn-out shots of the Big Apple. That’s not padding the running time—there’s real emotion in there. However, Spike Lee did much more(with less)in his haunting “25th Hour” from 2002(I guess Ms. Paquin has this market cornered, as she fills a similar role in that film as well). I really despised the character of Lisa at times, which totally appears to be the intention, so it’s tempting to opine that Ms. Paquin filled her role to a tee. But I caught the early 20’s Paquin(at the time of actual filming), laboring to “act young” more than once, a mistake that Paul Sorvino took me to task on 25 years ago during a scene with his daughter in “The Diary of Anne Frank”. To paraphrase, “you’re not that far removed from the age you are being asked to embody, so don’t push it—just be it”. You were right on that one Paul, and you taught me how to spot it. I’m very fond of J. Smith Cameron as Lisa’s occasionally absentee Mom, Joan. Not-so-much the capable Jean Reno with his Transylvania count version of Joan’s amorous suitor. Matt Damon is stellar as a wayward professor, while Matthew Broderick is adequate as an insecure one. “Margaret” didn’t necessarily have to be shorter, but less of a mess would have been nice. Ultimately, it’s a far-reaching, unwieldy creation that manages to hit its mark more often than not. Grade: B+