Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2011 6:25 pm 
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Teen drama queen off the rails seeks justice: one of 2011's best American films is from 2005

Margaret is a movie about New York life, particularly about an Upper West Side girl and her actress mother, about her school, her sex life, her moral confusion, her rage, and a terrible accident she's involved in that she can't let go of. It's a mind-boggling work, by turns exhilarating and maddening, containing absurd, overacted scenes but also moments so precise and hilariously true you've never seen anything like them. Margaret is the best worst screen experience of the year. It's unforgettable.

Though he's written screenplays and an acclaimed stage play since, as well as for television, this is only the second film by Kenneth Lonergan, whose first was the prize-winning You Can count on Me, in 2000. Fights and litigation between Lonergan, editors, and producers kept Margaret in the can from its completion in 2005 until its limited release in 2011. It already seems dated, an artifact of the post-9/11, post-Iraq invasion era, but also universal, or at least archetypally American. There are other signs of the movie's date: two of the producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, are deceased. Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo look decidedly younger and slimmer. And Anna Paquin was not yet known as a blonde telepathic waitress in the HBO vampire series "True Blood."

This feels like one of those crazy, brilliant projects that ran away from its creator and left him struggling to protect it even when he saw it didn't fit the shape of a well-made film. It's unwieldy, operatic, unevenly paced. In fact it anticipates its own operatic excess, containing extended moments from arias by Bellini and Offenbach in live performance at the Met. A weepy embrace after the duet from Tales of Hoffman ends the film. Along the way there have been many shouting matches.

In Margaret, which isn't a character's name but refers to the famous "sprung rhythm" poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring & Fall" ("Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving. . ."), Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, a seventeen year-old girl who distracts a New York City bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) just long enough for him to hit and kill a woman, Monica (Allison Janney), whom Lisa is with when she dies. This turns Lisa's life around, but her life otherwise goes on. The unwieldiness of the movie is because characters and scenes are extraordinarily rich and fully developed. We not only hear about the play Lisa's mother Joan (played by J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan's wife) is in, but all about her nervousness about the play's reception and Lisa's impatience with that. And we see a scene from the play enacted on different evenings, as in a film by Jacques Rivette.

Margaret's depictions of classrooms are typically specific and smart, like the one where John, the blunt-edged lit teacher (Matthew Broderick) has a simple interpretation of the flies from Lear, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport," and when a bright boy confounds him with a more complex, philosophical reading, he nervously sips his milk carton and moves on to the next passage. The kids are all specific, sophisticated, and smart. But in the civics class taught jointly by an older white man and a young black man what repeatedly happen are shouting matches between a Syrian girl advocating for Arabs and Palestinians and Jewish students taking a simplistic stance. Lisa takes one of the most screaming, right-wing positions: this is Bush-era politics, and New York's 9/11 trauma and anger are fresh.

Lisa's free-flowing rage also connects with her sexuality. She breaks a boy's heart, and orders up a more experienced boy (a laid-back Kieran Culkin) like a pizza to come to her apartment to relieve her of her virginity. This takes place while Joan is on a date at the Met with her rich, devoted and cultivated new Latin lover Ramon (Jean Reno). Joan is too neurotic, selfish and confused to deal with Ramon's civility and honesty -- her loss. Lisa also takes her math teacher (Matt Damon) as her confidant, adviser, and a little more.

Central to the film's complexity (as revealed in a go-for-broke performance by Paquin) is its young protagonist. Linking up with the victim's best friend Emily (the steely Jeannie Berlin), she goes on a quest for justice through a suit against the bus company. She can't resist contacting everybody, even going to the house of the driver, who becomes very angry (great performance by Ruffalo there). Emily calls her on her pose of righteousness, though, and she herself knows she's just an Upper West Side rich white girl acting out her mommy issues (with a well off divorced dad in California, adeptly played by Lonergan himself). Is she a knight in shining armor, or a spoiled, exploitative little bitch? She's both. The movie's profanity-laced shouting matches are over the top, but they're also the best scenes: in their operatic truth they're more real than movie dialogue normally gets.

Lisa's crusade is a realistic exploration of the legal system. She, Emily, and the victim's cousin Abigail (Betsy Aidem), are successful through a specialized lawyer in a wrongful death suit that gets Abigail a lot of money -- but it's not what Lisa wanted to accomplish at all. Why should this remote cousin benefit? Lisa is not one to accept compromise and leaves the lawyer's office screaming expletives. Margaret is above all a study of what Richard Brody called, in an enthusiastic recent re-comment on the film, the "conflict between law and life, and between procedural justice and the sentiment of actual justice."

Margaret gives you some remarkable writing and acting in individual scenes. It's easy to see why Lonergan would be unwilling to part with them, and also why fans of the well-constructed film would be driven up the wall by what seem like digressions. But these "digressions" provide a novelistic richness. It's all that's a "mess" about the film that contributes to making it so interesting and original. We need lots more "messes" if they can be as glorious as this.

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret began a limited release September 30, 2011. Due to growing interest it was presented again starting December 23 in New York City at Cinema Village, where it was screened for this review.

On January 18, 2012 the San Francisco Film Society announced it will have a special "exclusive" showing of Margaret starting February 17, 2012 at the SF Film Society Cinema at 170 Post Street in San Francisco.

See NYTimes story, "Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece" (June 2012).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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