Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret opens in Australia on a miserly two screens this week, despite an impressive cast that includes Anna Paquin (TVs True Blood), Matt Damon (Contagion), Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers), Matthew Broderick (Tower Heist) and Jean Reno (Le Chef). The reason for such a limited release might have something to do with the behind-the-scenes woes that saw the film sit in post-production for more than half a decade, while Lonergan, producer Gary Gilbert and financing studio Fox Searchlight all fought each other in court. The final cut – two-and-a-half hours long, but still more than an hour shorter than Lonergan allegedly would have liked – smacks of concessions and the loss of dramatic cohesion. But while the hatchet editing compromises many strong scenes and performances, it is a protagonist who grows more and more unlikable with every passing minute that makes Margaret, in its second half especially, simply unbearable to watch.
Lisa (Paquin) is a more or less unremarkable teenage girl; confident, argumentative, endlessly indignant and utterly convinced of her own superiority. She fights with her mother – a successful stage actress (J. Smith Cameron; You Can Count on Me) – and debates her classmates vigorously in her expensive Manhattan prep school. But Lisa’s world is shaken after she distracts a bus-driver (Ruffalo), causing him to run a red light and hit a pedestrian (Elizabeth Janney; The Help) who dies in Lisa’s arms. To say that the film never tops this scene is unfair – I doubt any movie this year will. Janney’s performance – confused and terrified; desperate to hold on – is worthy of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, despite lasting five minutes at the most.
Indeed, Margaret is loaded with fantastic scenes and award-worthy performances – a fact that makes its wealth of shortcomings all the more frustrating. Paquin embodies the sanctimonious Lisa, who decides, despite her own unacknowledged culpability, that the bus driver should be punished for his crime. But he denies that the light was red, a lie that at the time Lisa corroborated to police. After some moral flip-flopping she confronts him, unsuccessfully, at his home – another terrific sequence thanks to the wrist-wringing work of Mark Ruffalo (who deserves much more screen time). Her rather galling sense of virtue reaffirmed by the driver’s refusal to accept responsibility, Lisa goes to the police to amend her report. But by then the case has been closed, and the cops have little interest in listening to a morally outraged teenager – especially when she’s lied to them before. And so Lisa takes the bus company to court.
While the ins and outs of the legal proceedings that dominate the second half of the film are somewhat interesting, listening to Lisa scream and shout on her soapbox soon becomes tiring, and not long after, sickening. Always the loudest and most obnoxious person in the room, Lisa insists everything she does is done in the pursuit of justice. But as her fervour grows and grows, her own repulsive hypocrisy likewise becomes more glaring, to the point that it becomes utterly impossible to support her crusade. Which is, of course, the misguided allegorical point. During a class-room argument about the September 11 attacks, Lisa comes across – as she does in many other scenes – as despicably self-righteous; the way the film equates the city’s real-world tragedy with her own shrill teenage melodrama is ineffective, pretentious and borderline offensive.
As a result of the aggressive editing, the film is also weighed down by numerous underdeveloped subplots. Various would-be love interests for Lisa, some wholesome, others inappropriate, crop up and then vanish at random points throughout the film, stalling the narrative while adding nothing significant to our understanding of our increasingly unbearable protagonist. Matt Damon plays a Maths teacher to whom Lisa becomes attached, but it seems like most of the meat of that relationship has been left on the editing-room floor – not even Damon’s typically excellent performance can make it fit into place. Her mother’s awkward relationship with a mild-mannered Columbian entrepreneur (Jean Reno) saps even more momentum and probably should have been exorcised entirely. Presumably Lonergan meant Margaret to be a tapestry. Instead, it’s a series of incongruous threads.
Eventually, after a particularly insensitive piece of self-aggrandising, the best friend of the deceased woman (Jeannie Berlin; The Heartbreak Kid) calls Lisa out on her bullshit; for turning other people’s lives and emotions into her own personal opera. The outburst summarises my issues with Margaret perfectly, while at the same time doing little to assuage them. Most of the characters – and Lonergan too, it seems – agree that Lisa is an intolerable human being without even a modicum of self-awareness, empathy, humility or tact. So remind me again: why am I watching a movie about her?