Thursday, January 12, 2012
Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
2 out of 5
A epic of sweeping mediocrity, Margaret is the cinematic version of the annoying prankster who pushes every button in the elevator before getting out at the top floor. Despite a promising beginning with Anna Paquin as a jejune New York high school student who inadvertantly causes a fatal bus crash, the film's meandering script follows far too many blind alleys in her struggle to make sense out of a truly senseless tragedy (and I mean "senseless" as in "dumb," as in a cowboy hat plays a critical role in a pedestrian's death). Some of these wanderings I can understand. Margaret was shot in 2006 and shelved until last year due to a lengthy post-production lawsuit that prevented writer-director Kenneth Lonergan from finishing his movie. Hollywood heavyweights like Scott Rudin and Sydney Pollack rushed to Lonergan's aid, and final cut was handled by some guy named Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. With this much creative heat, how could Margaret be anything less than a masterpiece?
Well, there's an old saying about a horse designed by committee. There's also plenty of evidence, however, to suggest that Margaret was quite a homely creature to begin with. Paquin's guilt brushes up against enough adolescent angst to fill multiple movies. She bickers with her insecure mother (J. Smith-Cameron), plays Lolita to her handsome math teacher (a defiantly placid Matt Damon), loses her virginity to the class cad (Kieran Culkin), and on and on. Margaret feels like a entirely different film once the bus crash comes back into play, as Paquin and the victim's best friend (Jeannie Berlin) sue the MTA to fire the driver (Mark Ruffalo). Even at two and a half hours it's clearly too much plot for one movie, a fatal flaw that's extremely evident as seemingly important characters disappear completely and carefully crafted subplots are resolved in jarring bursts of tossed-off dialogue.
To be fair, Lonergan is a skilled writer. He's an emotional polyglot who maintains a high standard of authenticity as he shuttles between the minds of mewling lawyers, brassy old ladies, and sophomoric high school know-it-alls. But a little restraint might have been nice. It's as if Lonergan had three (somewhat clichéd) movies in mind, and decided to make them all. The result is a hot mess with many ideas that probably sounded good on the page (Lonergan casting himself as Paquin's hero-intellectual father; English teacher Matthew Broderick conveniently popping up whenever the film needs a forced literary allusion) but come across as phony and indulgent onscreen. Margaret is genuinely intriguing when it posits our need to grieve as a construct of our underdeveloped consciousness and our rejection of a cruel, random universe. It's just a shame that every other second is dedicated to the patently false notion that Margaret is a great work of art, waiting expectantly for us to pledge our respect and admiration for such a contrived, over-the-top display of shaky judgment and terrible self-editing.