“I hate the fucking movies. They’re bullshit,” Darren (John Gallagher Jr.) stammers after the forthright Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) asks whether he’s asking her on a date. Of course, he is, but to reveal that his idea of going to the movies has any meaning except in the most literal sense would be tantamount to the crushing emotional death one can only experience when they’re young. In Kenneth Lonergan “Margaret,” it’s an early reminder that the filmmaker has not forgotten what it felt like and during the first time I saw the film, a seemingly self-aware nod to the precarious fate that awaited it as piece of celluloid.
I finally saw “Margaret” for the second time on Tuesday night at a free screening at USC, led there by a trail of tweets from the vociferous #teammargaret. (Thanks to Jonathan Brock and Mark Olsen.) When the School of Cinematic Arts programmer Alessandro Ago took to a podium before the screening to thank Fox Searchlight for providing a print, it didn’t seem like the formality it usually is since Searchlight has reportedly not returned phone calls from local theaters such as the New Beverly and Cinefamily offering to play it after it was buried during its initial theatrical run. Even without reading stories about all the legal issues that plagued the film since its production in 2005, all I needed to see was this poster in front of the Landmark Sunshine in New York, the label of one of its producers, Gilbert Films, hastily pasted over with the “Camelot Pictures” moniker that’s no longer used by producer Dan Gilbert to know the depths of the dispute.
While in the city for the New York Film Festival, I took the subway down to the East Village to sit in a crowd of roughly 12 people to settle into what I suspected would be the only time I’d ever see “Margaret” theatrically and up until this evening, there was no reason to think otherwise. To my surprise, I enjoyed more of “Margaret” than nearly any of the world class films I was seeing at Alice Tully Hall, though I, like many others would later, had to qualify my appreciation of it while acknowledging it was a bit of a mess. There were tonal irregularities, not only in some of the editing choices, but in the writing itself, and insert shots that bugged the hell out of me, beginning with a conversation at a police station between Lisa and a detective (playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis) that inexplicably breaks the film’s rule of long, often unbroken scenes of conversation by cutting to a shot outside and seemingly alleviating the tension. It takes place nearly an hour-and-a-half into the film’s legally-mandated two-and-a-half hour running time and from there, “Margaret” felt as though it rappelled to its conclusion, resolving all of its ambitious storylines to various degrees in haphazard fashion.
As a result, my first reading of the film was to watch with my mouth agape at how Lonergan’s follow-up to “You Can Count on Me” spoke about itself, the story of a young girl desperate for guidance when the adults in her life aren’t willing or have the capacity to help. And Paquin’s Lisa needs to talk to someone after she feels she’s responsible for a fatal bus accident by distracting the driver (Mark Ruffalo) and cradling the nearly-dead Monica Patterson (Allison Janney) in her arms for her final breaths. Growing up with a flighty actress for a mother (J. Smith Cameron) and a father who left for the opposite coast after their divorce, Lisa has enjoyed privilege but not much in the way of actual parenting, so left to her own devices, she’s petulant with a strong sense of conviction about the way the world works without any actual experience in it. She’s brought up to speed quickly once she changes her testimony about the accident, doing what she feels is right only after a confrontation with the driver irks her and the legal quagmire that follows could easily be compared to the one between Lonergan and the different sets of the producers on the film. In a particularly amazing bit of casting, Lonergan takes on the role of Lisa’s father who can only communicate with her from the opposite coastline, lamenting each time they talk how slow his process is and knowing to a degree that he’s abandoned his daughter, he offers advice unsure of whether she’ll take it.
In the two interviews Lonergan has conducted since the release of the film (both with an attorney present), he’s confirmed that indeed the version of “Margaret” that was released in September bears his stamp of approval, though he’s also insisted that he prefers a cut that Martin Scorsese worked on alleged to be in the two-hour-and-fifty-minute range. Perhaps that version would smooth out the subplot between Lisa and her geometry teacher (Matt Damon) and give a little more shape to her mother’s romance with a French software salesman (Jean Reno). However, what I experienced Tuesday evening was a far different film than the one I had seen in New York, not because a frame of footage had been changed but because I had finally seen it with a real, full audience.
Now in New York, moviegoers can enjoy “Margaret” this way since the Cinema Village somehow got their hands on a print and have found success showing it three times at day, extending its engagement that began in December through another week. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the rest of the country, but hopefully that’ll change since it was only during the second viewing that I realized “Margaret” is best enjoyed with a crowd.
Of course, that’s because ultimately that’s the point of Lonergan’s post-9/11 tapestry, a film that had it been released shortly after it had been shot would’ve drawn comparisons to the lauded Alejandro González Iñárritu drama “Babel” about how a single incident affects all of us. But rather than tracing the ways we are all connected, Lonergan goes down the far more difficult path – with a difficult protagonist – by showing how all of the breakdowns in Lisa’s orbit portend a cruel future that will alienate her further from public life, her sudden idealism lost in disbelief at bureaucracy. Yet she can’t be left alone, as Ryszard Lenczewski’s cinematography frequently gets across with extras often passing through the frame, either to show those she’s too self-possessed to take notice of or to engulf her. (An unassuming shot of a neighborhood wedding right before Lisa visits Ruffalo’s bus driver in the suburbs is all the set-up the following scene needs.)
There was no doubt “Margaret” was an immersive experience the first time around, the quality of Lonergan’s dialogue so vividly capturing the things we say out of fear and the relationships all realized with characters that have equally valid points of view. Techinically, Nico Muhly's score was always rich with intricate string compositons and the panoramic shots of the city didn't just convey a sense of grandeur, but of the loneliness that existed in all the buildings with windows lit up individually. However, when seen with a full audience, the film’s occasional injections of humor burst through in ways they hadn’t before, smoothing over points that had felt more abrupt initially. When the audience laughed at a split-second scene of Lisa’s suitor Darren crying after she hangs up on him, an awkward moment that felt misplaced in an empty theater suddenly gave it a new life and Matthew Broderick’s entire performance as a frustrated English teacher no longer seems superfluous. Even better, the shared laughter amongst strangers paves the way for the film’s final scene where Lonergan puts everything together at the Metropolitan Opera. For me, it was no longer a beautiful exchange between two of the film’s main characters after rushed epilogues, but a profound statement earned by its inclusion of the audience, allowing them to get as much out of it as they were willing to put in while watching it.
In return, there was healthy applause at the end of “Margaret” in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, even though Lonergan nor anyone involved in the production were there to enjoy it. Before the screening, I would’ve compared the writer/director to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s playwright Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” endlessly building a cityscape for brilliantly realized characters to inhabit, only not entirely certain where to stop. Now I realize he knew all along, with all that legal wrangling resulting in possibly dismayed financiers, but a whole new set of investors who will be able to keep it alive long after its production troubles die down. Given extra room to reinterpret it as they please since there truly isn’t a finished cut of the film available, it’s up to the fans of “Margaret” to keep the film from escaping the public consciousness, yet as any of them could tell you, it doesn’t leave once it’s there.
Late afternoon update: Los Angeles will have another opportunity to see "Margaret" when it plays a weeklong run at Cinefamily starting on January 27th, per L.A. Weekly.