“The Magnificent Ambersons,” Orson Welles’ 1942 follow-up to the proverbial game-changer “Citizen Kane,” has two legacies. Many critics and scholars consider it a masterful look at the dissolution of an affluent American family. For Welles aficionados, however, it’s the one that got away: Welles was abroad when the studio, RKO, decided to recut the film against his will. The outcome exacerbated the former prodigy’s relationship with the industry, kickstarting his transformation into a Hollywood pariah. However, the dual legacies aren’t mutually exclusive: “Ambersons” still delivers even if it fails to represent Welles’ overall vision.
That tumultuous is a helpful framework for looking at “Margaret,” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2000 debut “You Can Count on Me.” Initially slated for release four years ago, “Margaret” became the subject of heated courtroom disputes and media scrutiny while Lonergan battled distributor Fox Searchlight over the final cut. It finally received an under-the-radar release this weekend, shepherded into existence with Lonergan’s begrudging approval with the assistance of producer Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
From a commercial perspective, it’s not a pretty finale: “Margaret” earned $3,000 on two screens. Artistically, however, the movie delivers on a surprisingly effective scale, no matter how Lonergan sees it. Alternately perceptive, subversive, tragic and profound, “Margaret” follows disillusioned 17-year-old Lisa (Anna Paquin), who struggles with the boundaries of her privileged Upper West Side upbringing.
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After she accidentally plays a role in causing a clumsy bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to kill a pedestrian (Allison Janney), Lisa gives a false testimony that keeps the driver out of trouble. Regretting the decision, she spends much of the movie embroiled in attempts to bring the driver to justice. At the same time, her single actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s wife) tries to stabilize her lonely existence with an active dating life while coping with her daughter’s mounting angst.
As Lisa grows more frustrated with her environment, the movie takes on unique philosophical weight. Through classroom conversations about 9/11 terrorism and debates with apathetic police officers, Lisa finds her perspectives on justice running into a wall. She wants to punish the guilty and won’t listen to arguments that move beyond her committed black-and-white point of view.
Although busy with a number of plot twists, some better resolved than others, “Margaret” remains an insightful work elevated by its emotional weight. Lonergan’s honest portrait of a teen broadening her understanding of society contains a remarkable amount of tonal complexity: Lisa’s experiences take into account notions of wealth, class and justice, all under the larger arc of emerging adulthood and told with the bold flair of a dark comedy.
Lonergan overstates his protagonist’s intellectual journey with certain stylistic indulgences (including a memorably flashy climactic sequence at the Metropolitan Opera), but he rarely over-sentimentalizes it. Lisa’s conflicting need to rebel and set things right find her in a believable state of disarray. She faces a constant failure to communicate; told she’s afflicted with “adolescent self-dramatization,” she wonders why that should matter if her intentions are pure. “People don’t relate to each other,” she whines.
As it stands, the main flaw of “Margaret” is that there’s too much of it. At 2 1/2 hours, the movie repeats its central motifs several times over. The plot becomes redundant: Lisa tries to bring the bus driver to court; Lisa fights with her mother; Lisa gives up on the case; Lisa gets along with her mother; repeat. However, nothing renders the movie unwatchable. Whether she’s casually losing her virginity to a creepy classmate (Kieran Culkin) or flirting with a young high school teacher (Matt Damon), Lisa’s life continually holds interest. Because Paquin’s performance is so believable, the ongoing cycle of events never get tiresome. Still, for long stretches of time Lisa’s world just sits there instead of moving forward.
Considering that Lonergan initially wanted the movie to run three hours, the studio’s concern almost makes sense. However, there’s enough there to get an idea for the immersive experience Lonergan wanted to create, which makes you wonder if it really would’ve hurt the movie’s commercial prospects if it contained that extra half hour. Whether “Margaret” would work better or worse in its original format four years ago remains unknown. But one thing is clear: If this is Lonergan’s “Ambersons,” there are worse fates.
criticWIRE grade: B+