Margaret follows a teenage girl consumed by the death of a pedestrian.
Shot in the fall of 2005 and tangled up in editing room disputes, lawsuits and juicy rumors ever since, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret has become the Chinese Democracy of American art-house films. The playwright-turned-filmmaker’s sophomore effort, following up his minor-key marvel You Can Count On Me, was so long in the making, it arrives bearing credits for two producers (Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella) who died more than three years ago.
Much like Axl Rose’s eternally delayed magnum opus, Margaret’s eventual unveiling turns out to be a jumbled anti-climax. A grief-stricken portrait of post-9/11 New York City, it’s a curious time capsule—and not just because of how young all these actors look. If nothing else, the movie serves as a snapshot of a very specific era on the verge of receding into history, when the air was still thick with fear, confusion and daily, heated arguments about America’s overseas incursions.
Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a brattily precocious Manhattan private school kid living with a Broadway actress mother (J. Smith Cameron, Lonergan’s real-life wife) and testing her boundaries in time-honored teenage tradition. She aggressively flirts with her geometry teacher (Matt Damon, who seems as befuddled by his role as we are), torments a love-sick classmate, and one quiet weekday afternoon tries to catch the eye of Mark Ruffalo’s Stetson-wearing city bus driver.
She succeeds all too well, as he blows through a red light and right over a pedestrian (Allison Janney). Next thing you know, Lisa is cradling the dying woman in the middle of the street, amidst over-done arterial squirts and some fairly harrowing moments by Janney. Despite the unfortunate bloodwork, it’s still a horrifying set-piece, hitting all the right notes of anger and disbelief when tragedy indiscriminately explodes out of nowhere.
Perhaps out of guilt for the role she played in the accident or maybe just because she’s still in shock, Lisa impulsively lies to the investigating police officers, claiming that the traffic light was green and therefore Ruffalo’s studly driver wasn’t at fault. (Margaret never quite gets around to explaining how, on a mobbed Manhattan street, not a single other eyewitness noticed that a bus full of people barreled through a red light.)
The rest of the film is Lisa trying to get back to normal, whatever that is, while wrestling with her shame, complicity and a sudden realization that the world is a much crueler and more random place than she’d previously imagined. As verbally articulate as she is emotionally immature, Lisa drops constant literary quotes, claiming that she doesn’t want to turn somebody else’s tragedy into “her moral gymnasium.”
Except that she does, because Lisa is a teenage girl, and teenage girls feel things more intensely than anybody else on the planet. It’s hard enough being that age without also having to figure out how to process your role in somebody’s grisly demise. Can you really just go back to doing geometry homework after something like that?
When Ruffalo appears insufficiently remorseful, Lisa goes on a crusade to get him fired. She rescinds her original statement to the police, and teams up with Janney’s best pal Jeannie Berlin for a civil suit against the bus company. Despite some razor-sharp work by Berlin, who sadly hasn’t been seen onscreen for 20 years, these scenes are particularly dire, rife with hand-holding explanations of the court system and Lisa at her most stridently unlikable. The movie is at least wise enough to call the character on the narcissism of making somebody’s death all about herself, and Paquin is absolutely fearless in plumbing Lisa’s selfish contradictions.
But what made You Can Count On Me so remarkable was the lightness of Lonergan’s touch, and his sly observations of natural human behavior. Margaret (by the way, none of the characters are named Margaret) has a few lovely grace notes tucked away inside its scenes, but is for the most part grinding and emotionally overdetermined. At its worst it plays like one of those forgotten mid-oughts’ self-consciously post-9/11 guilt-and-revenge hand-wringers, like 21 Grams or Reservation Road.
Lonergan seems as confused as Lisa. Margaret expands as it goes along, growing ever more dense with dead-end subplots and extraneous characters. I’m still not sure what to make of Jean Reno as a Colombian (!?!) gentleman caller who’s head-over-heels for Lisa’s mom. He seems to be trying to play Antonio Banderas, but comes off like Pepe Le Pew. Matt Damon just looks lost while trying to dodge his student’s awkward advances, and poor Matthew Broderick is stranded as one of those movie high school English teachers who only exists to read aloud Shakespeare passages illustrating the screenplay’s important themes. (This is the hackiest writer’s device in existence, and I can say so because I’ve used it.)
At an uncomfortable 150 minutes, Margaret is either an hour too short or an hour too long, with lurching, mid-scene transitions and inconsistent color-timing issues that are shocking for a major release. Word around Hollywood for the past six years was that Lonergan didn’t know how to finish Margaret . This version slipping into theaters may be a lot of things, but finished isn’t one of them.
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo