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In Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan has created a kind of Upper West Side opera in which the arias are tirades, the duets shouting matches. The prickly heroine of the piece, a smart, angry teen convincingly played by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin, embarks on a mission whose ostensible goal is justice on behalf of an accident victim, but which serves more directly to forestall her own pain and guilt over the role she played in the horrific event.
Opening in limited release Friday, playwright/screenwriter Lonergan’s long-delayed follow-up to his acclaimed debut, 2000’s You Can Count on Me, is in some ways as indulgent as its privileged protagonist’s sense of self-drama — the two-and-a-half-hour film’s first 60 minutes, especially, could benefit from a more succinct approach. At the same time, nearly every scene is acutely observed, a strong cast fully inhabiting Lonergan’s symphonic collision of ideas and in tune with his ear for the harsh poetry of New York language, variously hyperbolic and sparing, engaged and self-protective.
Originally slated for release in 2007 (when Paquin wasn’t nearing 30, and with the late Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella among its producers), the film was stalled by legal battles around a protracted struggle in the editing room. A raggedness is still apparent, but if some scenes are too long and some repetitive, they’re never predicable. Critical response and word-of-mouth will be key for this study of a character who can be as wearing to the audience as those around her, a film that’s far less conventional and intimate than Lonergan’s first feature.
At the beginning of Margaret, the most burning problem for Paquin’s Lisa Cohen — confident and seemingly older than her years but still essentially an innocent — is the search for a cowboy hat for a visit with her father out West. As a direct result of that ironic sartorial quest, she distracts a city bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to the point where he runs over a pedestrian (Allison Janney). Lisa rushes straight to the center of the bloody scene, offering the dying woman what comfort she can. Not wanting the driver to lose his job, she lies to police investigators about the crash.
But after an extended series of communication breakdowns with just about everyone in her life, plus a couple of gruesome nightmare visions, Lisa can’t rest until the truth is out and the driver held responsible for his actions.
Lisa acts out in many of the usual ways, the drugs and sex courtesy of a too-cool-to-strut schoolmate (Kieran Culkin). She flirts with her earnest geometry teacher (Matt Damon), an Indiana boy who’s no match for her aggressive vulnerability. On the home front, she makes a project of enraging her actress mother, Joan (an excellent J. Smith-Cameron). Understandably consumed with the opening of a play, and newly involved but barely connecting with a businessman boyfriend (Jean Reno), Joan is still alert to her daughter’s suffering and, especially, her hostility. Lisa’s remarried father (Lonergan) offers advice from an uneasy Hollywood-career outpost in Santa Monica.
Lisa’s fearless determination to make things right leads to confrontations with cops as well as the bus driver and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), and she forges a thorny alliance with the dead woman’s closest friend (a compelling, welcome screen return by Jeannie Berlin). Together they pursue a lawsuit against the MTA, and, in an unwieldy overload of information, the language-driven film enters the realm of legalese.
The film’s operatic intensity — beyond the trips to the Met that figure in the story, most effectively in the final sequence — helps to propel its often choppy narrative. DP Ryszard Lenczewski’s elegant images of Manhattan strike a note between romantic and elegiac. But the director’s reliance on the symbolism of New York goes only so far and begins to feel like a crutch.
As with You Can Count on Me, though, Lonergan has a sure touch with actors, and his portrait of upper-middle-class, intellectual New Yorkers never feels false, even if the dramatic impact remains more theoretical than felt.
The movie’s title is drawn from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” offered for discussion by Lisa’s private-school English teacher (Matthew Broderick), its theme brought home by Berlin’s character in a climactic argument. In Margaret, youth argues with the world, naïve in the certainty that justice can be attained — Lisa’s most appealing sense of entitlement. For the opinionated, hyper-verbal protagonist, who’s given to screaming about 9/11 in her social studies class and is often closer than shouting distance to crazy, self-involvement ultimately gives way to the sad awareness of the way the world works.
Opens Friday, Sept. 30 (Fox Searchlight)
Fox Searchlight and Camelot Pictures present a Gilbert Films/Mirage Enterprises/Scott Rudin production
Cast: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jean Reno, Jeannie Berlin, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Rosemarie DeWitt
Screenwriter-director: Kenneth Lonergan
Producers: Sydney Pollack, Gary Gilbert, Scott Rudin
Executive producer: Anthony Minghella
Director of photography: Ryszard Lenczewski
Production designer: Dan Leigh
Music: Nico Muhly
Co-producer: Blair Breard
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Editors: Anne McCabe, Michael Fay
MPAA rating: R, 150 minutes
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