There is a lot of great material in this movie about Lisa Cohen, an Upper West Side teenager (Anna Paquin) who is partly responsible for a horrific bus accident. Margaret is a tough coming of age story in which Lisa, an entitled, over-articulate brat, learns her life lessons the hard way. The screenplay, by writer-director and playwright Kenneth Lonergan, has the intensity of good play. This is not your typical Sunday flick at the multiplex. It's the stuff of great theater: the complexity of moral behavior, the distance between people who are supposed to be close, the discrepancy between morality and legality, the cathartic power of drama. Plus arguments about 9/11, Israel and the Palestinians, and Shakespeare thrown in for good measure.
It's a very ambitious film.
On paper, morality is easy. Everyone knows exactly what to do in case it is required; but in reality, it is too stiff and unyielding for the infinite messiness of life. Lisa's painful passage from her self-aggrandizing adolescence to adulthood, in which she learns that things are not black and white, that there are compromises and decisions to be made, and that no one escapes unsullied, is the best theme in the movie. What is truly moral may not necessarily mean the best outcome. What is truly moral is to seek and accept the truth, and so Lisa discovers that life, to put it mildly, is tough.
The question is, why is this film so unruly? A story about how messy life is does not necessarily have to be a mess. Margaret has an expansive plot with a rich cast of characters. A lot of pleasure is to be gained from the generous inclusion of all the scenes Lonergan can't bring himself to part with, particularly since one gets to watch great actors like Allison Janney, J. Smith-Cameron. Jeannie Berlin, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jean Reno and Matt Damon. But his lack of restraint eventually bogs down the movie. I kept wishing a ruthless editor would pare it down to the bone.
The audience is willing to suspend disbelief in Mark Ruffalo as a New York City bus driver who wears a cowboy hat on the job, which happens to be the kind of hat that Lisa is searching for, simply because the accident this provokes presents such a terrible moral dilemma. Who is to blame? And what is gained or lost by being truthful? To complicate matters, Lisa is a bit of a monster. She is snide and histrionic, a blatant manipulator, sexy and confused, needy and aloof, talks horribly to her mother (the great J. Smith-Cameron) is too intelligent for her own good; totally clueless, yet dead certain about her own righteousness. In short, a teenager.
Paquin does a heroic job juggling all that crazy, but she ends up giving you a headache, which could have been avoided with less scenes of her in hysterical teenage mode. She has the audience's automatic sympathy from the start (she's like a female Hamlet). So it is dispiriting when, over two hours later, she has thoroughly worn out her welcome. I have a feeling that Paquin, who is not a teenager, was trying too hard to pass for one. She has their number down to the last grating mannerism, but she fails to achieve a subtle balance between Lisa's abrasiveness and her grace. The directing and editing don't help her.
I suspect Lonergan wanted the movie to feel as big and expansive as life, but as Margaret meandered from scene to scene, I kept thinking that it would make a better play, because the limitations of the stage would force him to pare down the scenes. As good as they are, many of the too talky for a movie, stagy scenes slow down the momentum that leads to Margaret's ultimately moving catharsis.
It is worth comparing Margaret to the extraordinary Iranian film A Separation, which also deals, in a much more disciplined and polished style, with how a single human decision can tear into the fates of many people. A Separation is a masterpiece; Margaret is a diamond in the rough.