Looking for a bracing drama that makes you feel like you spent your evening well? Looking for involving characters embodied by actors who give such insightful, moving performances that you’re locked in all the way to the end, wondering what’s going to happen next and in what emotional shape you’re going to be in by the end? Margaret isn’t it.
The only powerful moment Margaret can manage is when teenager Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) inadvertently causes a woman to be run over by a city bus because she was waving to the driver, asking him from outside the bus where he got his cowboy hat. Allison Janney plays the dying woman in one scene, one scene, and she makes the biggest impact out of all the actors, adding greater weight to her already impressive body of work. It’s a sudden jolt that you carry with you throughout the movie, hoping for another scene like this, hoping that it will rise out of the stupor into which it sinks, wanting to feel like that some more, to feel like watching this bloated 149 minutes wasn’t a waste of time. That never comes.
Lisa is only part of this little corner of the world that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan focuses on. At first, she’s carefree and careless, as would be expected of a teenager, and then after the accident, she doesn’t understand how people can worry about such trivial matters. Why does her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) worry so much about her performance in this one play she’s doing when she’s been in so many other plays, and about her new boyfriend (Jean Reno, who isn’t given much to do, and that’s how you know this movie has problems), when there’s such pain and death and misery in the world?
Lonergan takes his subjects seriously. Always has. He wants to sear his characters in the memory of those who watch. He has an odd rhythm in this one, of scenes being so short that they don’t make any kind of impact. It’s just part of life, but where is life as it relates to this movie? We have our own lives; we want to see what someone else thinks about life, the feeling they have for it, their opinions, their analyses, their hopes, what movies are supposed to do in giving us something to think about, something we might not have even considered before, and something to really feel. It’s not that too much is expected from Margaret, just that if a movie requires you to spend 2 hours and 29 minutes watching it, then you want something out of it, something to take away that makes that time worthwhile. Still nothing.
The performances are ok, just ok, nothing that can top what Allison Janney has done. Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick are in here at brief moments, talking to Lisa, as she seeks some kind of relief, some kind of understanding, to center her world again, soon realizing that the world is never centered. It is always off-balance, and we just have to balance ourselves in a way that keeps us from falling down. Lonergan doesn’t show this too well, with everything so disconnected that we can’t connect to any moment among the characters after that accident.
Oh, but that’s not even the worst thing. There are some moments, very few, in which Lonergan actually focuses, in which his dialogue is so sharp, so smart, even a little funny at times, that you wonder why the rest of the movie isn’t like this. Where was that focus that makes the accident scene so stunning? Nowhere else.
At least there’s the good fortune of Anna Paquin, whose performance is outstanding, vivid enough to make you really feel that endless pain that suddenly ends the rest of her teenage years before they actually do, but the movie should not rest entirely on her. Can’t be helped, though. That’s all there is. That’s all Lonergan is willing to give. What an unfortunate waste of Matthew Broderick, Matt Damon, Jean Reno and others. The opportunity is there for better drama, but the execution of it just doesn’t care.