The scene last night outside Manhattan’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema was a surreal one. It was the world premiere of the new Extended Cut of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret.” The line to get in stretched around the block. At least fifty people were ultimately turned away. And yet less than a year ago, when “Margaret” played the Sunshine during its first theatrical release, there were days when the combined paid attendance at every single screening was less than fifty. When I saw “Margaret” at the Sunshine last fall, there were four other people in the room.
Just nine months later, a standing room only crowd of actors, filmmakers, critics, and cinephiles crammed into the Sunshine’s Auditorium 1 to celebrate a movie that had been miraculously brought back from the dead. It was a testament to the power of Lonergan’s film and to the small group of extremely enthusiastic critics who saw it during its initial run, believed it deserved better than its treatment by the press and the public, and fought to keep it in the cultural conversation.
Before the screening, Lonergan thanked several of those critics by name, including Slant’s Jaime N. Christley, who started an online petition encouraging Fox Searchlight to make screeners of the film for end-of-year poll consideration, along with The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, HitFix’s Kris Tapley, and Time Out Chicago‘s Ben Kenigsberg, who’d flown in from the Windy City for last night’s screening. For any other movie, that would seem insane. But “Margaret” has a way of burrowing under people’s skin.
It certainly burrowed under Lonergan’s. The playwright and writer/director of “You Can Count On Me” worked on the film for years, and when he couldn’t finish it to either his or Fox Searchlight’s satisfaction, it sparked a series of lawsuits that are still not entirely settled. After a half a decade of production and post-production, “Margaret” finally opened last fall, with little fanfare and almost no marketing, in just two theaters. Early reviews were poor (“To watch the long, painful last hour of this movie is to watch all of [Longergan’s] good ideas and smart impulses collapse into a heap of half-written, awkwardly acted, increasingly frantic scenes,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times), but a second wave of critics latched on to the film’s enormous ambitions and scruffy charm and began singing its praises, peppering their posts and tweets with the hashtag #teammargaret. Word of mouth began to spread. A British release went better than anyone expected. A movie that had been buried by its distributor suddenly became an underground hit.
At least two of the critics who panned “Margaret” the first time around — Kyle Smith of The New York Post and David Edelstein of New York Magazine — were on hand at the Sunshine for the premiere of the Extended Cut, which was announced with a runtime of three hours and eight minutes, roughly 35 minutes longer than the Theatrical Cut (Lonergan refuses to call either a “Director’s Cut,” since he made and approved both versions). True to its name, this Extended Cut offers more of everything in “Margaret,” both good and bad: more pathos, more messiness, more humor, more indulgence. It heightens the film’s flaws and strengths in equal measure. Having seen both, I prefer the Theatrical Cut, which flows more smoothly and hangs together more tightly (and, at least according to what was presented on Monday night at the Sunshine, boasts far more polished sound and image quality). But if you’ve already enjoyed the original version, the Extended Cut is essential viewing.
Its heroine remains New York City teenager Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), who learns some harsh lessons about adulthood in the aftermath of a bus accident she unwittingly causes. While out on a shopping trip on the Upper West Side, she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) long enough for him to run a red light and kill an oblivious pedestrian (Allison Janney). At first, Lisa lies to the police and says the driver is innocent, but guilt over her role in the incident eventually spurs her to recant her initial statement, befriend the executor of the dead woman’s will (Jeannie Berlin), and bring a suit against the MTA. But that’s just the main component of Lonergan’s web of stories, a web that grows even larger and more intricate in this Extended Cut: Lisa’s actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) prepares for a new play and dates a new boyfriend, a suave South American businessman (Jean Reno); Lisa contemplates a crush on her math teacher (Matt Damon) and whether to lose her virginity to doting Darren (John Gallagher Jr.) or disinterested Paul (Kieran Culkin); the students at Lisa’s high school argue over the meaning of Shakespeare and the root causes of 9/11.
Many of the most beneficial additions in the Extended Cut beef up the supporting roles for Lisa’s fellow students; Darren’s subplot, in which he asks Lisa out on a date and then deals with the psychic fallout of his rejection, is made even more squirmily poignant with the inclusion of a brilliant new scene set in a Manhattan diner. Lisa, still reeling from the bus accident, tells Darren she doesn’t want to go out with him anymore while the camera slowly zooms from one end of the diner to the other, showing off one of the more dramatic changes in this new version of “Margaret”: a radically reshaped sound design that puts a new emphasis on overheard conversations. As Lisa breaks Darren’s heart, the camera passes over several other patrons, picking up snippets of their dialogue (a couple of elderly women, for example, chat about a dog that’s so ugly its owner never worries it will get stolen). This motif pops up over and over in the film; in a post-screening Q&A hosted by playwright Tony Kushner, Lonergan explained that the use of street noise was meant to reinforce the notion, addressed onscreen by Berlin’s character, that despite our delusions of grandeur about the glorious narrative of our lives, the rest of the world will always keep on spinning, oblivious to our tragedies. With its emphasis on the voices and stories of the people around Lisa, the Extended Cut of “Margaret” begins to look like the ultimate New York movie — not just one New York story, but every New York story, all condensed into three, gloriously overstuffed hours.
Additions like the diner scene make Lonergan’s themes far more clear, but that clarity sometimes comes at the cost of the Theatrical Cut’s beguiling ambiguity. Late in the third act of both versions of “Margaret,” Lisa confronts Damon’s math teacher after they’ve had an affair and tells him that she’s had an abortion. In the Theatrical Cut, the scene appears out of nowhere, teeming with questions: is Lisa telling the truth? Is she lying in order to hurt someone the way the bus driver hurt her? We never know. The Extended Cut adds an entirely new sequence that removes all of the questions about Lisa’s mysterious pregnancy. It strengthens her character’s relationship with her mother and makes the film’s operatic finale even more poignant, but it also dulls the razor’s edge intensity of Paquin and Damon’s altercation.
Still, nearly all the new scenes in “Margaret” are superb, enriching the movie’s tapestry of interwoven ideas and characters. Having seen the Extended Cut, it’s hard to imagine the movie ever having existed without the diner scene. On the other hand, I still prefer the sleeker pacing of the Theatrical Cut. Either way, both versions are deep and rich and bursting with life. They could conceivably be cut and recut endlessly into entirely different movies, which is probably why it took something like 3 years to edit the thing in the first place. Even if I didn’t love the Extended Cut any more than theatrical one, I’d happily watch both again. Or how about a third version? Maybe in another year we could all show up at the Sunshine again for an all-new cut of “Margaret.” I bet a lot more than five people will show up.
“Margaret” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.