Movie Review: Margaret
By Ryan Mazie
September 30, 2011
When a movie gets made, one of the biggest challenges is for it to withstand the test of time. Will it stay referential? Memorable? This week’s “new” coming-of-age drama Margaret is already facing an uphill battle when it comes to being current. Shot in 2005 and sitting in limbo ever since (one of the longest delays in recent memory, especially, for a film with an A-list cast), I have a feeling if Margaret made its 2006 release date, it would already have been forgotten.
Shot two years before donning a pair of Merlotte’s shorty-shorts in the supernatural HBO hit (and personal favorite) True Blood, Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, an Upper West Side, Jappy, 17-year old high-schooler with an extraordinary vocabulary that only teens in movies possess. It is undercut by her typical teenage, rambling articulation.
Lisa’s personal life exhibits the same irony, surrounded by adult problems, yet bullishly tackled with the swinging pendulum of teenage emotions.
Serving as our protagonist (and sometimes her own antagonist), the plot catalyst is quickly employed. Lisa flirts with a bus driver (played by a lost-looking Mark Ruffalo). As she distracts the driver, he plows through a red light and accidentally hits a woman, who bloodily dies in Lisa’s arms.
First telling the police that the light was green, in a fit of guilt and upset over the driver not acknowledging his responsibility, Lisa changes her story to get the driver fired and feel redeemed.
Lisa’s sudden need to reveal the truth seems less out of good conscience and more out of bitterness and angst. However, the odd (and fairly un-cinematic) plot serves as the basis for what Margaret truly is – a coming of age story. The problem is that Lisa already is fairly adult (besides still holding on to her virginity, which she loses in an awkwardly funny scene); it’s her emotional control that’s childish.
Paquin, in another screaming and crying role, does a fine job navigating Lisa’s calculating mind, even though she is held back by hackneyed dialogue (“Like, when will I ever use this in real life?” she retorts to a teacher over a test).
The long-awaited follow-up film to director-writer Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, Margaret’s delay (the film is also the center of two lawsuits) is mainly due to the director having the final-cut. Originally running three and a half hours (Martin Scorsese reportedly called it a masterpiece), distributor Fox Searchlight refused to release it if it was over two and a half hours. The two reached a stalemate, with Lonergan having difficulty whittling away at the lengthy picture and Fox Searchlight not wanting to renege on his final-cut deal in order to uphold their reputation of valuing artistic freedom. The cut of Margaret now being released is 149 minutes (so you can see who won in the end).
Long but not unbearable, Margaret needs to be either an hour longer or an hour shorter. With a bulging cast including Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick, the side characters come-and-go, adding less than most likely originally intended. The only fleshed-out characters besides Lisa are her stage actress mother, who is trying to fix their troubled relationship (a superb and sympathetic J. Smith-Cameron), and Emily, the dead woman’s best friend turned Lisa’s confidant (a strong yet sometimes over-the-top Jeannie Berlin).
While I believe a three and a half hour cut could have been better, an even shorter, tighter cut, just focusing on a few characters could have also worked too (although with stars like Damon, I doubt Lonergan would have the nerve to cut him out – although ballsy director Terrence Malick infamously lessened Sean Penn’s role to a mere cameo in Fox Searchlight’s May release, Tree of Life.).
Though rumored to have many famous editors help Lonergan to condense his film by an hour (only Anne McCabe is given an editing credit), even at two and a half hours, Margaret transitions like a quick TV recap of “what happened last week” that plays before each new episode. No scenes are ever fully played out, lessening the impact. However, with a tearful ending that feels the most complete out of any other scenes prior, Margaret has bursts of brilliance, but the problem is that they are only flashes.
Now for the burning question: How does Margaret hold up? Actually, fairly well, due to a lack of pop culture references (although a scene at a movie theater garnered a few chuckles from the audience due to posters for Flightplan and The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Most of the conversations about morals still work, although a heated-debate over 9/11 and the Iraq War that goes on during one of Lisa’s classes for a multitude of scenes seems trite and needless.
Margaret has been delayed for so long that two of its producers (Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella as an executive) have been dead for three years. Would the film make them proud? Occasionally, yes, with some powerful scenes. Whether the film missed its full potential or lost it during the editing process is up to debate. Margaret is a behind-the-scenes disaster, but an on-screen middling experience.
6 out of 10