Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
* 1/2 (one and a half stars)
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for."
-"SPRING AND FALL" Written by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1880)
There is a part of me that wishes to blame NPR "Fresh Air" radio hostess Terry Gross but I do realize that act would be wholly irrational.
I originally carried no interest or desire to screen "Margaret," the second film from Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan, who previously captured strong critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for his debut feature "You Can Count On Me" (2000). I had nothing against the film or towards Lonergan himself as an artist. It was just a situation where Lonergan's first film was simply one that had passed me by. Since I really had no plans to play catch up with that film, any attention his subsequent film would possibly garner just did not register with me and probably would continue to not register unless for something of a more dramatic nature. And here is where Terry Gross comes into the picture.
While driving home from work one evening very recently, I typically turn my radio dial to "Fresh Air" to hear who Terry Gross' guest of the evening happened to be. On this fateful evening, Gross' guest was Kenneth Lonergan himself, as he was making certain promotional rounds for the DVD release of "Margaret," a film I quickly discovered had garnered quite the reputation through its extremely troubled history. For you see, "Margaret," starring Anna Paquin and the likes of Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney and Matthew Broderick, was actually filmed six years ago over the course of three months. Where the trouble began was during the editing process as Lonergan struggled to piece his film together to suit his artistic vision as well as satisfy the business end of the project and meet his 2007 theatrical release date. From what I could gather from veiled remarks during the interview and some articles I have found throughout cyberspace, art and commerce reached an impasse as Lonergan found himself unable to edit the film to his creative desires, including making the film reach its final running time, which was contractually obligated to not exceed 2 1/2 hours but Lonergan felt his film functioned better running a hair over three hours. This unexpectedly extended and increasingly expensive post-production process has led to a series of lengthy lawsuits, which in turn has held up the theatrical release of the film until this past fall/winter when "Margaret" was given a tiny, token distribution to theaters. Now, "Margaret" has reached DVD/Blu-Ray status where viewers are now able to see both/either the theatrical 2 1/2 hour edit or Lonergan's 3 hour plus version.
What I heard of the interview plus some audio clips from the film intrigued me tremendously and I had hoped that one of the very few brick and mortar video stores remaining in my city would indeed carry the film upon its shelves. Thankfully, the good folks at Video Station did indeed have the film, albeit one, solitary, difficult to obtain copy as it has been consistently checked out for the past several weeks. But, at last, I obtained the copy this past weekend, and finally, I was able to view the entire experience. And...oh boy...dear readers...
While I did not hate the film, "Margaret" is absolutely and undoubtedly terrible. I will say that the film's failure is not due to the actual storyline nor for any conceptual and thematic qualities whatsoever. In fact, those elements are more than compelling and riveting enough where I could easily see the great movie that lurks somewhere within the major disappointment I witnessed. For me, the failure of "Margaret" lies firmly within its construction and overall presentation. So much so, that I feel that this film is the perfect example of what can happen when a filmmaker is just too close to his own material and artistic vision that he loses all sense of perspective. With "Margaret," Kenneth Lonergan was hopelessly lost in the cinematic weeds.
"Margaret" stars Anna Paquin as 17-year-old Lori Cohen, an insufferably precocious student at a wealthy Manhattan private high school, which seems to function with an extreme child directed curriculum as most classes solely exist as vehemently exchanged debates laced with rampant profanity and very little adult guidance, if any. Lori lives with her younger brother and carries a fractured and turbulent relationship with her Mother, Joan (played by J. Smith-Cameron), a stage actress who just may be on the cusp of a newfound notoriety as her new off Broadway play is set to open. Her laconic Father, Karl (played by Kenneth Lonergan himself), a commercial producer, lives in California with his new girlfriend and communicates with Lori via telephone calls, effectively keeping her at arms length.
At school, Lori is experimenting with a newly discovered sense of sexual power, as she dresses somewhat provocatively, toys cruelly with the affections of one young suitor (John Gallagher Jr.), casually loses her virginity with another classmate (Kieran Culkin) and flirts shamelessly with her Math teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon).
One day, while shopping for a cowboy hat to wear on a proposed trip to visit her Father, Lori catches the eye of the cowboy hat wearing Gerald Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), a Metropolitan Transit Authority bus driver. As Lori runs alongside the bus, attempting and succeeding to garner the bus driver's attention, the bus accidentally runs a red light and hits a pedestrian (Allison Janney), whose leg is severed and soon dies in Lori's arms on the New York streets. The remainder of "Margaret" depicts Lori's crushing guilt as she not only wrestles with the responsibility of her actions but also her mounting rage and emotional despair as her developing world view is severely tested when confronted with a morally ambiguous adult world.
As I have previously stated, when I watched "Margaret," I could easily see exactly how a great movie existed within the proceedings as the actual storyline and themes contained therein could make for an absorbing and devastating drama. There are many sequences throughout the film, the bus accident scene and its immediate aftermath, most notably, that indeed carried a supreme weight and strong sense of dramatic power. All of the actors are game to give their respective roles, no matter how large or small, their very best shot and Anna Paquin in particular, is obviously trying to swing for the fences with a fully engaged performance that possesses a hefty amount of passionate gusto.
In Kenneth Lonergan's favor, I have to admit that I truly appreciated his conviction with the character of Lisa Cohen. Like Director Jason Reitman and Writer Diablo Cody's excellent "Young Adult" (2001), it is indeed a remarkably risky move to create an unlikeable character and ask your audience to hang onto them and their tribulations and even ask for you to try and understand them for any stretch of time, let alone an especially lengthy stretch in the case of "Margaret." Lisa Cohen is an extremely difficult character to embrace, if at all. She is so astoundingly narcissistic and downright mean to her family and schoolmates during the film's first half and then she even plummets to even more astounding levels of self-congratulatory anguish and self righteous piety during the film's second half when she essentially leaves adolescence behind and becomes immersed in the adult world. This aspect actually works to the film's advantage as I felt "Margaret" existed in some universe where the disparate works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club" (1985) met somewhere in the middle and shook hands. Please allow me to explain...
As you may have gathered by this time, there is no one in the film named "Margaret." The title of the film comes from the poem I have attached at the beginning of this review and is included during one short moment in Lori's high school English class as her teacher (played by Matthew Broderick) reads it aloud to the students. Without going through any sort of massive poetic analysis for those of you who still may be planning to view this film anyway, just try to think of the poem and how it relates to Lori's life as an exploration of one's emotional state as one grows older. If you recall the "group therapy sequence" at the climax of "The Breakfast Club," the so-called "basket case" Alison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) uttered the iconic line of dialogue, "When you grow up, your heart dies." In that one line, Alison unearthed a universal teenage concern regarding the world at large as she essentially wonders aloud, "Why are adults not as empathetic as I am?"
In "Margaret," we do have such a similar scene set during yet another rancorous classroom debate which featured the question "Should teenagers rule the world?" In the case of Lori Cohen, I would gather that she would strongly feel that teenagers should rule the world as her dealings with more and more adults frustrates her endlessly as she runs into all manner of adult world brick walls making her question everything she ever thought or felt about the world at large in the first place. In her mind, no one else seems to be as torn about the death of the pedestrian as she feels that she is. Her emerging viewpoints of justice and fairness are indeed quite black and white which contrasts dramatically with the moral grayness of how the world really works. Her views also clash desperately with the level of guilt she carries throughout the rest of the film. Yet even then, Lori never really quite owns up to her responsibility and even transfers her guilt into a ferocious crusade against the bus driver as she hopes to have him fired but is unaware of the greater political landscape of even attempting such a move and how her passion may appear to be grotesquely disingenuous to the deceased pedestrians next of kin and close friends. In one of the film's very best scenes, one adult figure tongue lashes Lori for incorporating everyone and everything into her own personal sense of drama and self-involved crisis. "This isn't some play!! This isn't some opera where we are supporting players to you!!" the adult admonishes to Lori's complete incredulity.
These are the qualities and moments that made "Margaret" a film that I wanted to keep with even as I was growing increasingly tired of the experience as a whole. Lori Cohen fascinated me because in addition to functioning as a more in depth version of her character from Spike Lee's beautifully mournful "25th Hour" (2002) , Lori is essentially a post 9/11 teenaged Roskolnokov roaming through a horrific inner world of torment, mortality, remorse and consequences and Anna Paquin, to her credit played this girl as if her life depended on it.
And even so, the film's largest problem lies in the fact that at three hours plus, "Margaret" is disastrously interminable due to its construction and editing. Its sense of pacing is so poor that viewing the film often became excruciating and despite the presence of people like Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, and Matthew Broderick, Lonergan saddled them with a film that wastes every single one of them in roles that felt to be either underwritten, severely edited, ill conceived, non-sensical or completely and flat out superfluous.
Broderick only appears in perhaps three scenes and I truly had no idea of why he was even in the film to begin with. There is one strong scene set in his English class where he engages in a debate with a student over Shakespeare but it amounts to absolutely nothing to the film in its entirety. The great Jean Reno also appears in the film as a Colombian businessman who courts and falls for Lori's actress Mother. Yet, he also felt to be shoe-horned into the experience, showing up here and there without rhyme or reason and disappearing from the film altogether in a most arbitrary fashion. Plot elements of heart attacks and one abortion also felt to be terribly contrived. Scenes begin and end abruptly. Some drag on and on. Some grow increasingly histrionic. Others even felt to be complete throwaways, edited into the film without any sense of building connective tissue from one moment into the next. Simply stated, "Margaret" is a giant sized mess of a movie tat maybe needed a pair of eyes completely removed from the project in order to fully connect the dots and weave together the stunning tapestry that is indeed hiding in that mountainof footage somewhere.
Maybe "Margaret" was just one of those projects that was not quite meant to be. Or it was one where the stars were just not aligned properly. Or it was one where the process just got away from Lonergan's best artistic intentions. Maybe Lonergan was attempting to make a film that worked more like a novel.
And maybe that is the key. Perhaps, if Kenneth Lonergan doesn't quite have "Margaret" out of his system as of yet, perhaps he could re-write the film as a novel. There is GREAT stuff rummaging around this story and film. But sadly, Lonergan was just not able to find it.