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“Margaret”: Much Ado About Nothing?

July 17, 2012

Seven years after it was filmed, You Can Count on Me auteur Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore drama Margaret has finally been released in its full, three-hour-plus “director’s cut,” albeit on DVD. When the truncated, 150-minute version briefly hit theaters last year, it created a cause celebre, with critics raging against the evil mini-major studio overlords at Fox Searchlight who forced Lonergan to slash his alleged masterpiece (with the assistance of Martin Scorsese and his Oscar-winning editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who’d worked with the screenwriter on Gangs of New York) to fit a two-and-a-half-hour running time. Well, having suffered through the punishing 186-minute incarnation, I can say emphatically: This movie really needed to be cut.

It’s a fairly simple premise: A post-Piano, pre-True Blood Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, an Upper West Side high-school student who inadvertently causes a fatal bus accident, then sets out to bring the equally negligent driver (Mark Ruffalo, who was much better used in You Can Count on Me) to justice. But Lonergan doesn’t want to stick to his story—his movie keeps sprawling out in every direction, encompassing Lisa’s strained relationships with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s real-life wife) and father (Lonergan plays the role himself, well); her sexual escapades with classmates (John Gallagher, Jr., unrecognizable as one of the costars of HBO’s The Newsroom, and Kieran Culkin) and a teacher (an alarmingly youthful Matt Damon); and the lives of disparate New Yorkers, including cops, lawyers, the accident victim’s cranky best friend (Jeannie Berlin, who brings much-needed comic relief) and random passersby, whose conversations are overheard in irritating snippets.

I can see what Lonergan was going for here—an Altmanesque, naturalistic drama about post-9/11 New York City, but he doesn’t have the chops, visually or otherwise, to pull it off. The Manhattan skyline is practically a character in the film, for all the minutes Lonergan spends (wastes?) admiring it, yet his pedestrian camerawork somehow makes it look flat and uninteresting. And the artistic pretentiousness of his script is perfectly encapsulated by the fact that there is no character named Margaret—the title is taken from a poem read by her English teacher (Matthew Broderick, also better in You Can Count on Me) that’s meant to illuminate the coming-of-age theme.

Lonergan’s point, if he has one, seems to be “shit happens.” (Woody Allen explores a similarly banal idea in To Rome, With Love). And oh, does shit happen: (SPOILER ALERTS!) Emily’s mom is romanced by an anti-Semite (Jean Reno), who dies of a heart attack after she breaks up with him; Emily loses her virginity, gets pregnant and has an abortion; she hires attorneys (nicely played by Michael Ealy and Stephen Adly Giurgis), confronts the driver and his blue-collar wife (a miscast Rosemarie DeWitt) and deals with the victim’s greedy relatives. It’s a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And yes, Lonergan makes Shakespeare references as well.

Paquin tries to hold the movie together, but her performance is erratic, which may be fitting considering her character’s adolescent instability. I just wish Margaret, for all its Manhattan geographical accuracy, weren’t so all-over-the-map. It’s a film as unfocused as Paquin’s image on the poster.

Are you part of Margaret‘s cult following? Did I miss something? Post a comment!

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3 Comments
  1. I haven’t heard of this movie, but there is never a good reason for a movie to be over 120 minutes long.

    • bruceafretts permalink

      I don’t mind long movies when the story line justifies them—epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Reds.” This one does not.

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