Give Kyle Smith credit. He may be the most cantankerous critic in America — at least according to a recent study in The Atlantic Wire — but he’s open-minded enough to give a film a second chance. When Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” opened in New York last fall, Smith gave the film a mixed-to-negative 2.5 star review in The New York Post, calling it an “interesting failure” and “a study in frustration.” When “Margaret” returned to Manhattan in a new Extended Cut earlier this week, he gave it another shot. Now, he says on his website, he “partly disagrees” with his original review:
“What is a film for? If it’s for telling a single perfectly shaped story, then ‘Margaret’ doesn’t succeed. If it is to give you something to think about, ‘Margaret’ has a touch of greatness about it… I think what I noticed more this time around… is that the film is really about how our lives, particularly in New York, bleed or leak into one another’s and yet we seem in many cases not to be bonding with each other at all.”
This is not a complete critical about-face, not quite an event to rival Joe Morgenstern panning “Bonnie and Clyde” in one issue of Newsweek and declaring it a piece of “dazzling artistry” the next. Smith still has some problems with the film. He greatly prefers the main character’s moral dilemma to her sexual misadventures, and wishes Fox Searchlight had forced Lonergan to cut the movie down to 90 minutes instead of allowing him to expand it to 180.
In my mind, these complaints kind of ignore the whole point of the movie, but Smith does make at least one salient observation: why is Lisa’s testimony about the bus accident so paramount to the court case? “I have difficulty thinking of any scenario,” Smith writes, “outside of a severe weather situation in which fewer than 50 people would have witnessed this gruesome moment, and so a single person’s false testimony would not much have mattered.” In the accident’s immediate aftermath, there are tons of eyewitnesses all around Lisa, not mention the people on the bus, plus any number of nearby security and traffic cameras. I don’t think this misstep necessarily dilutes the movie’s impact, but Smith is right: someone would have piped up. On the other hand, this inaccurate depiction of vehicular manslaughter reinforces the film’s themes about societal obliviousness. Even in the midst of this crazy, shocking event, no one is paying attention to anything but themselves.
Regardless, it’s never easy for a critic to admit they screwed up a review. Confessing a critical change of heart opens a writer up to pointed criticism of their own. “If they’re ‘wrong’ about this movie,” readers will complain, “why should they be trusted about other movies?”
Because, I say to the hypothetical readers I talk to in my head when no one’s around, it’s not about getting it right or wrong; it’s about being honest. Criiticism is opinion and opinions change. This isn’t politics; you gain nothing, except a little extra web traffic, by being obstinate and intractable. As “Margaret” proves with considerable power, people’s interpretations of events fluctuate constantly. What you say in the heat of the moment is less important than what you say in the end.
Read more of “Kenneth Longergan’s ‘Margaret’ Returns.”