Saturday, October 15, 2011


The indie cause celebré of the moment, Kenneth Lonergan's eventually tiresome yet often extraordinary "Margaret" has gained a large amount of champions who profess about its nearly-lost greatness. The film went through some terrible post-production problems when it was being completed a few years ago, and almost never hit screens. And even now, the distributor Fox Searchlight is said to be not marketing the film with the gusto that is usually employed. But what can you really say? This is an 150 minute film that was originally intended to be over three hours long, the title an obscure reference to a poem that's read quietly by Matthew Broderick, and the plot one full of loose ends and scenes that don't exactly match up with each other.

But, for the first hour and a half or so, the film feels like one of the strongest works in a while. These sections may be scattershot, but they're extremely enjoyable, brilliantly composed, and dexterously made. Lonergan shows remarkable economy in his storytelling: seeing the main character, Lisa (Anna Paquin, who does histrionic well), in a couple scenes at school, and one with a suitor named Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.), we already feel like we have a good idea of this character. More depths are uncovered, to be sure, but a very solid foundation indeed is laid down here.

Then the central incident of the movie occurs: Lisa gets into a gestural back and forth with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), which distracts him and leads to him running a red light. He hits and kills a woman (Allison Janney), whom Lisa tries to save and whose cause she ends up taking for the remainder of the film. She aggressively pursues getting the bus driver ousted from his job, which seems noble and all except for the fact that it'd probably destroy his life. Lisa never thinks at all about this, and, though her Broadway actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) originally says something (which, as a friend pointed out, is eventually ruled out in an inconsistency), no adult does either.

The film rips through scores and scores of characters on its way, but I don't think any work as well as the ones found in Lisa's private school. Broderick plays an English teacher there, but there's also Matt Damon as a geometry teacher Lisa is a bit too close to, and a whole bunch of talented teen actors who take Lonergan's script and run with it. The movie is at its best in its most trivial scenes, the ones that have really no consequence in what's happens ultimately, but do in fact sometimes comment on the action. These are the scenes that, when cutting a film down, are the first to go (I'll bet Lonergan probably had more of them in the director's cut), but, even though this film would be better if it was tighter and shorter, I would hate to have missed them.

Perhaps the biggest problem here, in my view, is not allotting more time to Ruffalo's character. He's only given two scenes to make his character, and he does a very good job of it, but there needed to be more. The film splits its perspective between Lisa and her mother Joan (going out dates with a bore played by Jean Reno), and it would have been nice to have a share of time to Ruffalo as well. Instead, the film takes on the annoying Emily, the accident victim's closest friend, as a main character, which turns out to be an incredible mistake. As Emily, Jeannie Berlin, Elaine May's daughter and an Oscar nominee back in the '70s for "The Heartbreak Kid," turns in a terrible performance, making a lot of hand motions and yelling in what can only be described as a Upper West Side Jewish Woman stereotype. Her scenes, coming towards the end, are lazily directed, and it's disappointing that the film goes through all it goes through just to lose its focus. That may be a result of the production issues, but I still bemoan it, especially since the film's final scene, an opera shared by mother and daughter, would have had a resounding emotional impact if placed correctly but, forestalled for this long, doesn't work nearly as well. B-

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