Thursday, January 12, 2012
Anyone following a film critic on Twitter has seen the hashtag: #teammargaret. Since early December, Team Margaret has been shaking its pompoms on behalf of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, which was shot in 2005 but released only last year. According to the Los Angeles Times, the movie was held up by a protracted legal battle centered on efforts to get a cut than ran for the contractually specified time of 150 minutes. A two-hour-twenty-nine-minute version of Margaret hit a few theaters last fall and promptly vanished. A group of critics requested, via a petition started by Jaime Christley, that distributor Fox Searchlight provide them with an opportunity to see the movie.
So Team Margaret was born, and lives, and Margaret is getting a second chance in a few venues, including the Cinema Village in Manhattan, where the Siren got around to seeing it. Margaret is being championed by people the Siren respects, and the Siren does not, as a matter of temperament or habit, enjoy being the grumpy contrarian who rolls her eyes over the pet hamster everyone else thinks is adorable. But one word that recurs even in Margaret raves is "mess." The Siren concludes that she lacks affinity for mess.
From the opening shots, warning bells sounded for the Siren, along with the plucking, plaintive score. The camera shows people crossing the street in bouncing, wave-like slow-motion that highlights every flaw in movement and appearance. There are eight million stories in the naked city, check out the faces of a few. As prologues go, at least it's honest; this one story out of eight million will be going by at the same slow, unflattering gait.
In the opening scenes, teenager Lisa (Anna Paquin) is accused of cheating by a teacher (Matt Damon). She responds with a sullen I'm-not-the-only-one defense and gets off with "don't do it again." She meets a gangly boy, supposedly her friend, who's trying to ask her out, and Lisa demonstrates the generosity of spirit she will show throughout by refusing either to accept his invitation or to give him a graceful means of ending the conversation. Lisa goes home, brushes off her younger brother and digs an impressive wad of cash out of her dresser so she can shop for a cowboy hat. She goes shopping for said cowboy hat and gazes in shop windows. The shopping trip will change Lisa's life, but even at this point there are overextended scenes and marginal characters.
The accident that precipitates the rest of the action is caused by Lisa spying a cowboy hat on a bus driver and asking him where he got it, as she canters alongside the moving vehicle. Instead of ignoring her, the driver tries to respond--whereupon he slams through a red light and into a pedestrian played by Allison Janney. Few pay such a hideous price for a fleeting moment of stupidity, and during the agonizing minutes it takes the pedestrian to bleed to death, as Lisa holds her and two passersby try to help, Margaret briefly takes off. The film offers no better acting and no sharper observations about the behavior of ordinary New Yorkers than in this scene. The confusion and numb shock of the police's arrival and questioning, and Lisa's shattered attempt to bypass her mother when she arrives home, are also well done. So are the moments when Lisa showers off the blood while her mother tries to clean her daughter's boots in the kitchen sink.
At first Lisa lies to protect the bus driver, concerned that he might have a family and could lose his job. Later she goes to visit him and, upon observing that he does indeed have a family and is clearly afraid of losing his job, she decides to retract her statement; later still, she spearheads a lawsuit. Anyway, Lisa's shower marked the end of the Siren's hopes for Margaret. Despite Lisa's total self-absorption and complete lack of self-knowledge, despite her failure to empathize with anyone in this crowded movie save her own spoiled self, it's clear Lonergan loves his heroine, loves her past all reason; indeed he cannot bear to part with her. No walk she takes from point A to point B is too mundane, no phone call she makes too dreary or static for inclusion. What could be Lisa's lone meeting with a police officer is stretched into two or three, plus an encounter with his colleague and some phone chats. Lisa and the accident victim's best friend meet with an attorney--twice--only to be told they require a different sort of attorney. So Lisa and the friend meet with him a few times.
If you do not love Lisa--and the Siren wanted Veda Pierce to eat the girl for breakfast--good luck. There's Jeannie Berlin as Emily, the victim's friend, a spectacularly real, recognizable performance. And there's a marvelous little scene where a bright student questions English teacher Matthew Broderick's interpretation of a line from King Lear and the teacher responds with lordly annoyance. Otherwise the many--way too many--supporting characters offer scant respite. Some, like Lisa's chilly father, played by Lonergan himself, are merely dull. Some, like Lisa's mother (J. Smith-Cameron), are as nerve-shredding as Lisa. Others are stereotypes, like the mother's boyfriend, a foreign businessman played by Jean Reno with courtly gentleness even up through the scenes where people start arguing over whether he's an anti-Semite.
Even when a conversation achieves a semblance of the rapid, rambling, funny way that New Yorkers actually talk, the movie is so arrhythmic that all humor withers--the Siren's fellow audience members were silent as the tomb. Some classroom arguments center on whether America Deserves What Was Done to Us, a clumsy and slanted way to focus on Lisa's nebulous guilt twinges and how sometimes violence just happens to innocent people. Other classroom interludes bring up apposite literary quotes (such as the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that gives Margaret its title) in an overdetermined manner that made the Siren wish Lonergan would just throw up an epigraph like Michael Curtiz.
The Siren never warmed to the choices made for script, camerawork or editing. A late, head-scratching reference to an abortion seems worth a smidge more exposition in a movie that finds time for crash courses in Mideast issues, personal-injury law and the correct way to shout approval after an opera. The cousin of the accident victim comes to town and she, Lisa and Emily discuss their intent to sue over the accident. Lonergan puts this on screen--but for the culmination of the suit, the cousin is on speakerphone. During one meeting between Lisa and the luckless police officer who's dealing with her, you get two cuts to the parking lot outside the police station. But when Lisa makes a (reciprocated) pass at Matt Damon, the camera bolts away as soon as she starts to dive for his crotch. Maybe the Siren is a pervert, but she would much rather see how that proceeded than wonder why the hell she's looking at a parking lot.
That question--why am I looking at this?--is one that's seldom asked during a great or even serviceable movie. And that question came again and again. The camera stalls to offer a ho-hum view across Central Park, which is like a ho-hum view across Sophia Loren. The Siren lost count of the pans across buildings. Two highflying helicopters circle, the anxiety of that image diminished by the fact that the movie is still preoccupied with tort law. A boat drifts down the river during a legal meeting; moments later, puzzlingly, the backside of the boat disappears behind a building. Part of the goal, the Siren supposes, is to tie Lisa's dilemma to the larger one that 9/11 gave New Yorkers. But Margaret dawdles so much, its through-line is so slack and its heroine so selfish, that scotch-taped city cutaways can't give the film any connections it hasn't earned.
(Revised slightly 5/12.)