Independent American cinema has fostered some of the most exciting and groundbreaking directing talents of the past forty years, from legends such as Francis Ford Coppola, to moderns masters such as Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. A well-received debut often leads to strong support from studios and financiers on a second project, and ‘Margaret’, the long-awaited second film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, is his follow-up to ‘You Can Count On Me’ (2000), which secured its lead, Laura Linney, her first Oscar nomination. With over a decade between films and featuring an impressive cast, expectations have been high for Lonergan’s ‘second album’.
Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a well-off New York teenager. She attends a private school, has a typically estranged relationship with her actress mother, and tends to concern herself with trivial and arbitrary things. Her selfishness and lack of compassion are tested, however, when she becomes involved in an horrific bus crash, resulting in the death of a pedestrian. Sitting in the middle of the road, a dying woman in her arms, Lisa is faced with a sense of mortality and responsibility, and the aftermath sees her flailing through her life, revolting against the new view of the world she has been given.
Let’s get it out of the way: ‘Margaret’ is an absolute disaster of a film. The film was completed in 2009, but was deemed ‘unreleasable’ by the studio. After various legal battles and interventions by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack, the film was crafted into its present state, and arguably, in a state that still deems it impossible to watch. Almost every element at play is executed badly and pitched totally wrong. Lonergan’s screenplay is truly awful, and his characters utterly unlikeable, and often reprehensible. There are three likable people in the film, and two out of the three die (you have to wonder if it is a coincidence). The rhythm plods along laboriously, with very little narrative to speak of, other than watching Lisa whine and complain and yell at every person she comes across. As a protagonist, she strikes as nothing more than a spoilt rich girl who thinks the world owes her something. This isn’t necessarily Paquin’s fault, but the hand of a firmer director might have veered away from the bore that Lisa has become. Almost every character of the film spends most of the time yelling at the other characters, not listening to each other and being offended by every thing anyone says. As the friend of the woman from the bus accident, Jeannie Berlin as Emily is particularly awful. She introduces a character as a very dear friend, then spends the entire scene swearing at him and reprimanding him. Every second she was on-screen was painful beyond description.
‘Margaret’ is an absolute disaster of a film. The film was completed in 2009, but was deemed ‘unreleasable’ by the studio.
With a cast as impressive as this film contains, you’d hope you would see some great actors overcoming such weak material, but the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Jean Reno and Kieran Culkin cannot save it. Damon seems completely at sea, trying hard to make it work. Poor Matthew Broderick suffers the most, with a teacher character that acts as more of a cypher than anything else, obscurely delivering the only line in the film with the name ‘Margaret’ in it, and still not able to tell us why the film is called this in the first place. Only Allison Janey as crash victim Monica, and John Gallagher Jr as Lisa’s potential love interest Darren come out of the film unscathed, but their characters are conspicuously absent - conspicuous as they seem to be the only characters we aren’t forced to hate.
After 150 minutes of awful people crying and whining and complaining at each other, intercut with slow-motion sequences of cityscapes and pedestrians for no discernible reason whatsoever, ‘Margaret’ ends with its trite message, where Lisa realises (whist being awful to her mother, who is awful back to her) that people don’t connect with each other, and no one listens anymore. That’s a good message, and maybe in a better film it would have landed, but it was a message obvious 20 minutes in, and two extra hours of it wasn’t needed to make the point. Perhaps this film is a victim of studio disputes or an artist being compromised, but regardless of this, ‘Margaret’ is a massive step in the wrong direction for independent cinema. You are left asking at the end why they bothered at all.
'Margaret' is being released exclusively in Melbourne through Cinema Nova on June 14. Check local listings for other states.