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by Peter Sobczynski

"Are You There, Audience? It's Me, Margaret"
4 stars

For the last few years, film enthusiasts have been following the long and tortured journey that Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" has taken on its way to the big screen. The film, which was Lonergan's follow-up to his acclaimed 2000 directorial debut "You Can Count on Me," began filming in September 2005 with a cast including the likes of Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno and, by all accounts, seemed to go relatively smoothly but difficulties began to develop when it entered post-production. Despite having only directed one previous film, Lonergan was given the contractual right to final cut--the much-cherished ability to completely control the film's final form that is usually only bestowed on the most successful filmmakers--provided that the running time for his version did not exceed 150 minutes. What happened from this point is still somewhat shrouded in secrecy and confusion--thanks in part to a couple of still-pending lawsuits--but it seems that Lonergan came up with a 180-minute version that he fell in love with and was either unwilling or unable to prune it down any further. As a result, numerous editors were brought in by the producers to do the cutting themselves, various lawsuits were filed by aggrieved parties and no less a figure than Martin Scorsese was allegedly brought in to put together a cut himself. Years passed and it appeared that "Margaret" might never see the light of day until enough of the legal obstacles were apparently overcome to allow the release of the film and while it is not known how much of the final product is Lonergan's and how much of it is due to the numerous other hands that were involved over the years, it should be noted that this version clocks in at 149 minutes.

Even if one hasn't been following the ups and downs of "Margaret" over the years, it is impossible to watch it now without getting the sense that there is something a bit off about the proceedings. Thanks to such mildly disconcerting sights as a theater marquee featuring the now-forgotten likes of "Flightplan" and "Serenity," a newspaper vending machine offering up the now-defunct New York Sun, an opening credits sequence featuring the names of two now-deceased producers (directors and producing partners Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack), not to mention the younger-looking visages of Paquin and Damon, stepping into the theater is like stepping into a time machine set for a not-too-distant past in which George W. Bush is still president and no one is yet rocking an iPad. And yet, it is a measure of the ultimate success of "Margaret" that after the initial shock of the inadvertent time displacement wore off, I was so captivated by what was going on with the story to pay much attention to when it was going on. Although the combination of lengthy delays, post-productions controversies and fairly minuscule release pattern would suggest that the entire enterprise was pretty much a disaster on all accounts, "Margaret" turns out to be, despite a number of flaws, a far more interesting and gripping work than its extremely checkered past might otherwise suggest.

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a privileged Manhattan girl who lives with her actress mother (J Smith-Cameron) and younger brother, attends a tony private school and spends a good deal of her time being alternately snooty, self-righteous and just plain ride to family members, classmates, teachers and anyone else unlikely to bear the brunt of her highly confrontational brand of teenage angst. While out one day on a quixotic quest for a cowboy hat, she begins acting in a flirtatious manner with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and distracts him just enough to cause him to run a red light and run over a pedestrian (Allison Janney) who dies in Lisa's arms as she bleeds out horribly in front of a group of spectators. Stunned by the incident, Lisa fudges her statement to the police to suggest that the driver had a green light and tries to get on with her life but finds herself plagued with guilt and when the time-honored quick-fix solutions of sex and rugs (both supplied by a classmate played by Keiran Culkin) faile to help ease her mind, she decides to come clean and admit that she didn't completely tell the truth in her statement but before she does, she goes out to see the bus driver to see if he is as consumed with guilt as she has determined that he should be. Not only does he not show enough remorse in her eyes, he continues to deny any responsibility for the accident on the basis that if he did, it would only serve to destroy his family and it wouldn't do anything for the dead woman.

Outraged by his unwillingness to feel the same levels of guilt and anguish as she has been cultivating, Lisa goes to the police to dramatically change her statement--in a manner that will allow her to feel that justice has been served while minimizing her own complicity--and then stunned to discover that it isn't going to make much of a difference; with the driver sticking to his story, the lack of any other corroborating witnesses and Lisa's earlier false statements, there simply isn't enough new or convincing evidence to warrant reopening the case. Lisa now becomes obsessed with finding some degree of satisfaction and after meeting with the dead woman's close friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), they begin to pursue a civil case against the driver and the bus company and even manage to include a distant cousin who has demonstrated no particular interest in her deceased relative but who is interested in the large payout that the bus company is likely to offer as part of a settlement. As time goes on, however, Lisa becomes more abrasive, cruel and self-centered to everyone she encounters, qualities made all the more unpalatable by her insistence that she is the only one involved who isn't acting completely out of self-interest. It is true that she has no financial stake in the case but it turns out she is after something else entirely--she wants everyone to validate her by acknowledging that her alleged grief and anguish is somehow deeper and truer than anyone else's despite the fact that she didn't even know the victim until the last few moments of her life--and there is an extraordinary moment in which she pushes things a little too far and Emily brutally brings her back to earth with kind of brutally honest truth-telling that Lisa has presumably never received once in all of her pampered and privileged existence.

Truth be told, although I have admired plenty of the films that Lonergan has contributed to as a screenwriter, such as "Analyze This," "Gangs of New York" and the underrated "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," I was not much of a fan of "You Can Count on Me" when it came out--it struck me as just another cloying and overpraised Sundance melodrama that tends to come across as far less persuasive or interesting when seen in a more oxygen-rich climate--and the notion of watching overprivileged Yuppie larvae moping their way through an extended narrative landscape also designed to evoke the neuroses and angst of the entire Big Apple in the wake of 9/11 struck me as being something akin to sheer torture. And yet, I found myself strangely captivated by the film because instead of celebrating and endorsing the solipsistic perspective of its central character, Lonergan refuses to let Lisa or us off easy by trying to make her likable or, barring that, creating a set of circumstances that allow us to understand and sympathize with her. Right from the start, Lisa is a brat and a whiner who, despite her stated disinterest in her mother's career, is always creating overly dramatic situations in which she is always firmly at center stage and as things progress, her self-absorption grows by leaps and bounds and at one point, she is insisting with a straight face that her feelings are the only ones that really count because, as she puts it, "Teenagers are idealistic and they care." To put a character this irredeemable at the center of a movie is a bold move, especially considering Lonergan's refusal to explain or excuse her actions, and in a crazy sort of way, it is a gamble that pays off in the end for those viewers who are able to tolerate her for that long.

Another key reason for why Lisa is such a fascinating character despite her numerous flaws as a person is the full-steam-ahead performance by Anna Paquin. Although it is a bit disconcerting at first to see her in a putatively new film looking far younger than the incarnation now seem regularly on "True Blood," that sensation quickly dissolves in the face of her fierce, forceful and utterly unapologetic turn as Lisa, who she portrays as the brash and brittle brat of your worst nightmares. Because of the essential core unlikability of the character, Lisa is the kind of role that most actresses would go to great lengths to avoid playing but Paquin tackles it with a fearlessness that is downright startling at time. Although the character is caught up in emotions that are too big and complex for her to fully understand, Paquin conveys this in a marvelously controlled manner that is often breathtaking to behold and as a result, the rare moments in which she lets her guard down and exposes her raw vulnerabilities are all the more affecting as a result. The other great performance on display in "Margaret" is given by Jeannie Berlin as Lisa's unexpected ally in her search for justice, albeit a drive borne out of a genuine sense of grief and loss. Berlin, making her first screen appearance in 21 years, is absolutely brilliant in the way that she allows her character to deal with the prickly Lisa with kindness and affection for her efforts on behalf of her deceased friend but only to a certain point--the scene in which Lisa goes too far and she cuts her down to size is such a stunning turnabout that you can practically hear all the air being sucked out of the room as it happens. Because of its rocky production history and haphazard release, it is almost certain that "Margaret" will wind up being an afterthought in regards to awards season but if there was any justice in the movie world, Berlin would be an instant front-runner for all the supporting actress honors in sight.

Margaret," a film which doesn't actually feature a character named Margaret (it refers to a poem of the same name by Gerard Manley Hopkins that is read in a classroom scene at one point, is not a perfect film by any means. Unsurprisingly, considering its checkered history, it is quite uneven at time with subplots that don't really go anywhere (most notably a tentative romance between Lisa's mother and a foreign businessman played by Jean Reno), characters whose screen time seems to have be chopped considerably (the most seemingly obvious victims of the post-production surgery being Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick) and moments that just plain don't work (such as the numerous inexplicable pans across the WTC-free city skyline). And yet, "Margaret" still works despite its unevenness--even thrives in a strange way--because the lack of polish is a better fit for the story that it is trying to tell. In terms of the behind-the-scenes battle, I can't rightly say who was right and who was wrong--while it does have enough going on to mostly justify its extended running time, I can't say with all honesty that I would have wanted to watch it for a full 180 minutes or so. However, to paraphrase the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that it takes its name from, it is not "Margaret" that I mourn for because at its best, is alive in a manner that few American films even dare to be these days and it is for those moments that make it worth seeking out.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22838&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/06/11 23:04:08
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User Comments

8/31/12 Chris. Obnoxious. Wild trajectories, needs a good editor--has potential. 2 stars
8/10/12 The Taitor Too long,tedious, and boring subplots, not worth 2.5 hours. 2 stars
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  30-Sep-2011 (R)
  DVD: 10-Jul-2012


  DVD: 10-Jul-2012

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