With its heavyweight themes, three-hour running time and addled sense of focus, director Kenneth Lonergan's MARGARET is a glorious mess of a movie.
Originally intended for theatrical release in 2006, the film was to be Lonergan's directorial follow-up to his Oscar-nominated debut, You Can Count On Me. The project languished in post-production hell, however, as Lonergan and the producers fought over the final edit.
Margaret had a very limited theatrical run late last year and has now been issued to home video in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack with both the shorter theatrical cut and Lonergan's own three-hour director's version.
I watched the three-hour cut and suspect the shorter edit will have its merits, studio-imposed or not. The film is long and rather exhausting, but in a good way. It's like taking a walk around the city, getting a little lost, and going about twice as far as you'd planned. It still feels good afterward, and you see some interesting things.
It goes like this: New York City private school student Lisa Cohen lives a life of relative privilege. Mom (J. Smith-Cameron) is a working actress on Broadway, dad (Lonergan) a commercial director in L.A. One dark day, Lisa is involved in a tragic accident when she accidentally distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), who runs a red light and kills a woman crossing the street.
In her panic and guilt, Lisa lies to the cops to protect herself and the driver. The incident begins a slow process of unraveling, for both Lisa and the very busy script. Lisa's already strained relationships go haywire, and she's soon drowning in high drama with her parents, her teachers (including Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon), and her friends. Lisa also becomes involved with the families of both the bus driver and the victim. And drugs. And sex. And skeevy prep-school burnouts played by Kieran Culkin.
Margaret is a lot of things, clearly, but at its core it's a dark, almost despairing, coming-of-age story. The bus accident has caused certain scales to fall from Lisa's eyes, and she finds herself entering a new world of terrifying adulthood. A world where people lie and scheme and fool themselves and let you down. Where death can come in an instant out of the clear blue sky.
Lisa's erratic and increasingly cruel behavior comes from the awful realization that she's part of this world, too, and struggling mightily against the tide. Lonergan makes plenty of highbrow allusions to precedent in opera, poetry and literature but never does mention the one character Lisa might feel closest to — Salinger's Holden Caulfield.
Throughout the film we also get sweeping pans of the New York City skyline, snatches of conversation from passersby, and lingering shots of crowds and airplanes. Lonergan's in a New York state of mind, and the story is shot through with urban anxiety and post-9/11 dread.
I wanted to like Margaret a lot more than I actually did. But I'm certainly glad I saw it, and I found the film's scenarios and images lingered in my mind. It's the sort of movie you chew on for a while, I think. You'll want to talk with someone about it afterward, so see it with a friend.
Format: DVD, Blu-ray and digital
Extras: None, aside from the director's cut on DVD.
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