Was "Margaret" Worth The Wait? Review

After the kind of storied production history that Margaret had, it’s fitting, and probably inevitable, that it would be looked on with perplexity once people were actually able to see it. The second film from Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me), Margaret was tied up in legal limbo for a number of years as its writer/director struggled to produce a feasible cut, despite being given the resources of Hollywood figures like Martin Scorsese and Scott Rudin. Difficult to dismiss as either a success or a failure, the film instead suggests something whose creative life is still very much in motion, and that there may yet be a number of reinterpretations in the future. There probably is an obscure object of Lonergan’s desire nestled somewhere in here, but right now, it is merely suggested without being fully realized.

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) might have been the female lead in a Woody Allen film: she’s attending a private high school, curious about her burgeoning sexuality, and has a self-centeredness apparently unique to New York’s upper west side. The adults (primarily her actress mother and her teachers) in her life float in and out of engagement, without really managing to make anything stick, until Lisa witnesses a bus accident in which the driver (Mark Ruffalo) runs a red light and strikes a woman (Allison Janney) fatally. In the aftermath, Lisa wonders if she was in any way culpable, and if there is anything she can do to reverse her guilt. Unsurprisingly, the morality of resolution ends up being murkier than that of the initial event, and initiation into the adult world proves to be a profoundly unsatisfying experience.

Naturally, that’s only so much of a movie that runs two and a half hours, but it’s essentially the spine of a narrative that loops in and out of her mother’s fresh romance with a new Chilean suitor (Jean Reno), her education, and her numerous male partners. The degree to which any of these connect is up to interpretation (though only the most generous viewer would suggest that they connect tightly), but they are for the most part realized sensitively and organically. Whatever Lonergan imagined as a final product when he set out in production, it’s safe to say that he never felt brevity would be an asset, which is actually one of Margaret’s greatest strengths. Because it never feels in a hurry to make its grand pronouncements, scenes are allowed to find themselves comfortably, so even when the film feels meandering, it never feels false.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Margaret is how (at least for a labor of love like this) uncinematic it is. Aside from an appealingly dramatic opening title sequence and the bus accident, the film contains virtually no 'big scenes' unique to the powers of celluloid, instead investing everything in its dialogue and the ability of the actors to infuse them with meaning. For the most part, it is well-rewarded, but it is also revealing about the creative limitations that may have prevented Lonergan from realizing a final product in a more timely fashion. Though it is undeniably big, Margaret doesn't always feel like a movie, but rather a collection of filmed scenes without any particular visual distinction. This lack of an aesthetic contributes a good deal to the film's 'unfinished' feeling, almost as if scenes could have been thrown together at random, but more than that, it denies the film a real sense of time and place, which one senses was crucial to what Lonergan envisioned.

No New York film has paid lip service to 9/11 without actually being about it so constantly since The 25th Hour. Though unrelated, the bus accident will surely evoke memories of the towers falling amongst many New Yorkers who would watch this. In her classroom discussions, Lisa repeatedly argues with a Syrian classmate about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Lisa's own confusion regarding the ultimate morality of her actions (i.e. whether initiating a lawsuit will actually make anything better) is doubtlessly meant to reflect the spiritual confusion that followed the century's most notable terrorist attack, but given how incompletely New York is evoked on a visual level, the parallel is less effective than it might otherwise be.  We are constantly reminded of the setting by virtue of landmarks and verbal references, but for as striking as the possibilities of that setting and period are, it can't help but feel as if there was lightning there that was never quite bottled.

It's never hard to get what Margaret is going for, or at least feel as if you are. Given the number of hands that ultimately worked on it, it's amazing the film isn't a complete mess. But with the thematic ambition behind it, it's not hard to both think that a stronger edition is possible, and that it may be yet to come.

SPECIAL FEATURES

The set contains two versions: the theatrical cut (at 150 minutes) and the extended cut (and 186 minutes).

"Margaret" is on sale July 10, 2012 and is rated R. Drama. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Allison Janney, Anna Paquin, J Smith Cameron, Jean Reno, Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick.

Jul
19
2012
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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