Margaret’s Upper West Side Story

A Well-Intentioned Mess

Damon and Paquin.

Trapped somewhere in the red tape of independent filmmaking between money and marketing, Anna Paquin delivers a very fine performance in the very odd starring role of a very bewildering film called Margaret. Written and directed by the excellent award-winning playwright Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), which is one of its major draws, it was filmed in 2005, tied up for years in lawsuits, and hindered by the deaths of its two most illustrious producers, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. Six years later and 30 minutes shorter, it is finally being released in limited runs as a 2½-hour art film that is something of a well-intentioned mess. In the time between shooting Margaret, editing it down from its original three-hour director’s cut and Anna Paquin’s emergence in True Blood, we watched her grow up from troubled teenager to vamping vampire. Some things are better off left unchanged.

Mr. Lonergan writes elegant, painfully honest, moment-to-moment dialogue that is better suited to the stage than to cinema, where pacing is everything. In this long, leisurely theater piece with camera angles, Ms. Paquin plays Lisa, a 17-year-old New Yorker who witnesses a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) run a red light and kill a pedestrian (Allison Janney) carrying a shopping cart. Feeling apathy for the driver and guilty because she was distracting him by chasing the bus to admire his cowboy hat, the girl tells the police it was an accident. Traumatized to the point of hysteria, she then sets about to change her original eyewitness account, but nobody will believe her. Distraught and frustrated, she begins to savage everyone she knows—family, friends, classmates and teachers alike. Uninvited, she attends an informal memorial service attended by friends of the victim, invades the life of the dead woman’s best friend (a superb Jeannie Berlin), convinces distant relatives to sue the Manhattan Transit Authority, threatens the bus driver, terrorizes her neurotic actress mother (a colorful performance by J. Smith-Cameron, who in real life is Mrs. Kenneth Lonergan) and wrecks her new love affair with a South American businessman (played by the famous French actor Jean Reno). In no time at all, the audience’s patience wears thin. Precocious works for a while, but this girl is opinionated, arrogant, emotionally unstable and given to talking in elliptical sentences that make you want to scream, “Stop the projector—I want to get off!” The case has been closed and the financial settlement paid, but Lisa has more things to say, more facts to correct. Flitting from one person to the next to unload her conscience, under the thin veil of getting the facts straight, Lisa rants and manipulates until she doesn’t appear to be cooking on four burners. By the time she forces another student to terminate her virginity and then seduces a sympathetic but foolish professor (Matt Damon, in a tiny cameo), claiming she’s pregnant and in need of an abortion, the character has lost all contact with the viewer and Mr. Lonergan’s screenplay has gone haywire.

Good acting prevails, especially by Ms. Smith-Cameron as the screwy mother and Jeannie Berlin, who gives one of the most complex portrayals of a stereotypically overeducated, analytical, aggressive, literal-minded, New York Jew I have ever seen. She still sounds exactly like her mother, Elaine May. But this is very much a movie about writing, and despite the sincerity of the dialogue, the style does not fit a cinematic format. As a director, Mr. Lonergan lacks the tempo that keeps audiences rapt, and he has a lot to learn about editing. As Lisa becomes obsessively relentless in her pursuit of justice, her cause takes over her life, interferes with her schoolwork and damages her mind. The script works best when it shows the difficulty of people trying to relate to each other verbally in an age of emails and sound bites, but eventually you just want to yell “Shut up!” Mr. Lonergan reduces everyone to hysterics and then leaves them stranded in their own clouded misery. There is no ending. Lisa and her mother go to the Metropolitan Opera and sob their way through Renee Fleming’s singing of The Tales of Hoffman. From start to end credits, very much an example of good work that doesn’t translate.

By the way, did I fail to mention there is nobody in Margaret named Margaret?


Running Time 149 minutes

Written by Kenneth Lonergan

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Starring Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo


Margaret’s Upper West Side Story