Movie Review: MARGARET Is Like Great Jazz

Jordan Hoffman sees one of 2011's abandoned films - Kenneth Lonergan's long-delayed MARGARET.

The week between Christmas and New Year's – or, as I like to call it – December's taint.

I always spend this week wandering around in a daze, yearning for something to do to keep my mind off the fact that the calendar is about to turn and I've wasted another year. Appropriate, then, that I should spend two-and-a-half hours watching a curious movie of debatable greatness that, even its harshest critics would agree, is almost a love letter to the art of walking around in a daze.

The movie is Margaret, the six-years-on-the-shelf post-9/11 drama, and it is the type of thing you rarely see. It has a solid cast, a dramatic setting and a powerhouse opening. All the tracks are laid for a big emotional movie with recognizable beats and teary-eyes speechifying. But something kinda magical happens. It is as if writer/director Kenneth Lonergan stood up, said “No!” and demanded that the chaos and heartache that challenges us in real life must challenge us as audience members, too. As such, the story chugs along following its own internal logic, chasing tangents and getting hyper-focused on vignettes that seem, at least on the surface, to be completely unrelated to anything.

Margaret stars Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen from New York's Upper West Side. I know a lot of Cohens from this address, and, man, she freakin' nails it. She's just as jumpy, stubborn and self-centered as any other not-unattractive teenage girl, but due to her “enriched milieu” of private education, exposure to the arts and vaguely defined progressive (disinterested?) parents she has the verbal dexterity of a Charlie Rose guest. She's smart enough to stay in the ring and spar but not mature enough to recognize she might be wrong once in a while.

One day when out looking for a cowboy hat she sees a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one. She tries to get his attention, to find out where he got it. There is eye contact, laughter, maybe even flirtation. As such, the driver runs a red light and slams into someone.

That someone is Alison Janney and she suffers a long, gruesome death in Lisa's arms. (I knew the plot hinged on a bus accident going in, but I was wholly unprepared with just how terrifying this scene would be.)

Lisa lies to the police about what truly happened, starts to feel guilty and then takes a long march toward redemption.

Or does she? Much of the remaining, quite lengthy running time is devoted to Lisa going through the motions of an Erin Brockovich-esque demand for justice. But it is never quite clear if Lisa actually wants to do right, or if she is just a bit of a drama queen who wants to be perceived as someone who wants to do right.

It doesn't help much that her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) is a not just an actress but a theater actress. (I mean, really, the government has to step in and make sure these people aren't allowed to look after children.) She's not a monster, but she's an emotionally starved person who can only feed off the applause of strangers. She's got a new boyfriend, a wealthy Latin American business man (Jean Reno) with whom she has nothing in common, but since he seems to “fit he part” of what her life should be she continues the relationship.

These digressions and character observations abound in Margaret. Lisa's school life is shown in sharp detail, but not the usual lunchroom or bleachers chatting. In highly politicized classrooms she is encouraged to rage about issues of the day, mostly about terrorism and Iraq, in an environment free of any real consequence. This is in contrast to Lisa's first interactions with “the adult world” of cops, lawyers, friends and family of the deceased when stray bits of loose-tongued obnoxiousness that would be forgiven elsewhere have lasting repercussions.

Margaret is the type of movie that is easy to reflexively dismiss as “a mess,” but it's also just as easy to whip oneself into a frenzy and label it “a masterpiece.” (This last move is particularly ironic, since one of the dozens spot-on observations is toward those who attend opera and feel compelled to shout the gender-correct “Brava!” in an effort to ensure that all around note that a) they enjoy difficult art and b) they enjoy it the right way.) I'm definitely a fan, but not yet willing to declare this the great hidden treasure of our age.

Margaret has become a something of a cause celebre among film snobs for reasons that you can read all about in (of all places) Time Magazine. Since I missed Margaret's earlier two-week run in Autumn I was kinda pretending it just didn't exist. Knowing that this wasn't Lonergan's cut also sat ill with me. Then it bobbed its head up again for this one week at New York's oddest art house, Cinema Village, and I reminded myself of the fact that sometimes the “producer's cut” is best. (I don't care what Orson Welles says, Touch of Evil is better with the Henry Mancini music during the opening shot.)

The peculiarity of this film and its provenance does create a bit of a mystique. For starters, it is an inadvertent period piece. Its lack of smartphones, for example, is very noticeable. If the movie was made today, would it open with a title that read “2005”? Personally, it led me to really push myself to get into the headspace of New York City in 2005.

The bus crash can certainly be read as a metaphor for the attack on the World Trade Center and Lisa's desultory, ultimately disastrous attempts to insert her (false?) nobility in the resultant legal quagmire would therefore represent the US's involvement in Iraq. Yes, a bit heavy for a flick about a high school girl, but it's that kind of movie. There are more than enough languid shots of people walking around in slow-motion to let the mind root around for deeper meaning, and when the characters let loose in dialogue they speak with a playwright’s wit.

It may also surprise you to learn that Margaret is actually quite funny. Elaine May's seldom seen daughter Jeannie Berlin kills it as the half-friendly/half-miserable ballbuster in giant sunglasses. (Anyone who thinks this character is overdone needs to meet my Aunt.) This film is dark, heck, it is almost nihilistic, but if you like verbal jousting, this one is for you. There are, however, more than just trace elements of the film's troubled post-production.

We'll never know which storylines were meant to continue on and which are “supposed” to be open-ended. There are other sequences where it is clear that dialogue from other scenes was slipped in under unrelated or neutral imagery. There are some moments toward the end that really feel hacked to bits, dropping in and out mid-sequence, or even using takes where the characters are blurry. (This isn't the only time when Margaret felt, for lack of a better term, “French.” Check out Alain Resnais film Muriel for a whole movie with this vibe. What's it with movies with a woman's “M” name?)

Those that are interested in the mechanics of film must see Margaret, if only to get a behind the curtain look at something that is almost finished. Is it a good movie? All I can tell you is that I was never bored during the 150 minute running time, my stomach was in knots during all the arguing and I laughed a hell of a lot. Margaret uses the concept of life as an opera as a bit of a motif, but for me it is more like a great jazz performance, unpredictable, uncontrollable, unrepeatable.