MOVIES | Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” trades tragedy for tedium

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One morning in January 2007, I woke up and broke up with my then girlfriend, who I was living with. I went to work, decided I’d made a terrible decision, and ran the mile-long distance back home in the business suit that I was wearing because it was also the day I was slated to defend my Ph.D. dissertation. As I ran past Cambridge landmarks, I could almost hear music surging. I burst through the door and found my girlfriend on the phone, making an appointment for us with a couples therapist. I remember thinking, okay, I guess life is not a movie.

That’s one of the themes of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (opening this weekend at St. Anthony Main): that life won’t obey a satisfying plot arc, no matter how much we might want it to. The problem in this case, however, is that in point of fact Margaret happens to be a movie, so we’re looking for Lonergan to demonstrate a consistent understanding of what exactly we’re all doing there in the theater. Instead, Lonergan tries to make five different movies at once.

Lisa (Anna Paquin), a high school student, carelessly flirts with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to accidentally hit a pedestrian (Allison Janney) who dies in Lisa’s arms. Lisa and the bus driver both tell the police, falsely, that the pedestrian walked against a red light; in subsequent weeks, Lisa becomes wracked with guit and tries to make things right.

That would be plenty of plot for one movie, and it might have been a decent one: Paquin’s performance is fearless, and Lonergan shows a taut discipline in the harrowing death scene and in subsequent scenes involving the victim’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin). But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For the price of your admission to Margaret, you also get a mother-daughter drama that comes complete with its own sub-subplot about the dating life of Lisa’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron); a coming-of-age story in which Lisa rejects nice guy Darren (John Gallagher Jr.) for bad boy Paul (Kieran Culkin), to whom she disasterously cedes her virginity; and a don’t-stand-so-close-to-me teacher/student love affair between Lisa and the boyish Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon).

When sparks first started to fly between Lisa and her teacher, I thought, well, this doesn’t excuse his behavior, but…after all, this high school junior is smart, spirited, beautiful, and nearly 30 years old. Actually, I later learned, though Paquin is now 29, Margaret was filmed over half a decade ago; it’s been mired in post-production ever since, including extended disputes about what the film’s running time would be. Lonergan wanted three hours, but the studio insisted on an upper limit of 150 minutes, which the current release maxes out.

Hopefully there will be a director’s cut release on DVD—not so I can see it (I’d need a jar of ether), but so that it can be conclusively established that a longer running time would not have made this a better movie. Lonergan’s wonderful You Can Count On Me (2000) featured a central character who was similarly buffeted and confused, but in that film, Lonergan knew that the film was fundamentally about the relationship between the character and her brother. Margaret spreads itself too thin, and the different subplots aren’t woven tightly enough. Lisa may be distracted, but Lonergan shouldn’t be. Every time you think Margaret is coming to some sort of resolution, yet another subplot twist comes stumbling through the door like Kramer.

The film’s conclusion does eventually arrive, but Lonergan makes the almost incomprehensibly poor decision to intercut his characters’ emotional catharsis with close-ups of an out-of-nowhere celebrity cameo. The celebrity is soprano Reneé Fleming, but the effect is just as jarring as if it were Danny DeVito. I can already guess the title of Lonergan’s eventual memoir: You’ll Never Get Final Cut in This Town Again.

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