I Owe You This Much

A few people have asked about the Margaret in Margaret, as well they might.  My apologies!   I think she was ungallantly left behind during a cut-and-paste from another version, although this may also have had something to do with it.

In any case, here she is:

“Margaret, whom we discover must be called Mar-gar-et to fit the meter of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” is a “young child”  who grieves over changes in nature she is noticing for the first, painful time.

“Ah, but as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by. . .”

It’s the kernel of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s epic look at the effect that the fall from another kind of innocence -– uncompromising idealism –- has on Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) a smart, self-absorbed 17-year old in New York City, a few years post-9/11.   

Lonergan lets Matthew Broderick give “Spring and Fall” its ideal reading, as an English teacher trying to pry responses from one of the poem’s tougher audiences, privileged kids, including Lisa, at a private school on the Upper West Side.”

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It occurred to me that the few readers lucky enough to see Margaret may not know Lonergan’s breakout success, You Can Count On Me (2000). It’s worth watching —  again or for the first time.

Scooping up indie and critical awards across the country, the film gave Laura Linney her first Oscar nomination and ignited Mark Ruffalo’s movie career after years of theatre.  Quite aside from its cast, perfect in Lonergan’s droll mix of dry wit, deprecation and tenderness, Count On Me is a time capsule of American innocence itself, before the convulsions of 9/11 and all that has followed.

Lonergan plays against the Our Town purity and prettiness of his small town setting, in among the Adirondacks.  If this white church-steepled town has always been a straitjacket for Mark Ruffalo’s wandering soul, it’s a perfect fit for his by-the-book sister, Laura Linney, whose life revolves around the right upbringing for her 8-year old (a debuting Kieran Culkin, simply fine.)

Count On Me also turned out to be an introduction to the Lonergan stock company: Ruffalo, of course; Matthew Broderick, a mainstay; even Kieran Culkin over the years. And if you look closely at Linney’s hilarious bank co-worker, seething at new manager Broderick’s fussy rules, you’ll discover J. Smith-Cameron, Margaret’s actress-mother, Jane (who looks rather like Jane Krakowski’s big sister.)

Can’t say enough about Smith-Cameron’s work in Margaret. The Eighth Circle of Hell must be reserved for working actresses with full-on teenage daughters, and Smith-Cameron manages to suggest that Jane’s faint edge of uncertainty – odd in a successful actress – had its roots in a divorce rug-pull.

(I always feel mixed about mentioning this, in case readers suspect casting nepotism, but Smith-Cameron and Lonergan are long married.  I’d say they’re both wildly lucky.)

Don’t know about you, but discovering in Margaret  that Anna Paquin’s cool choice for her first lover was adorable 8-year old Kieran Culkin, grown up and gone plumb to hell, dependability-wise, was not a passage I was ready for.

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In the same vein as sliding from one reference to another in the IMDb’s seductive linkages, the actors in Kenneth Lonergan’s movies have a history of other performances that beg to be seen.

Jeannie Berlin’s blistering, bravura work in Margaret, should have sewn up a 2012 Supporting Actress Award, in a just world.  Here, in a clip as Emily she gives the toughest possible response to the naivete of Anna Paquin’s Lisa, who had cradled Emily’s best friend in her dying moments after a bus accident.

(If brief language bothers you, this isn’t your clip.)

But, Berlin has already been an Oscar nominee, playing Emily’s comic  polar opposite in The Heartbreak Kid in 1973.   (The original, directed by Elaine May, NOT the Farrelly brothers unmentionable 2007 version.) It’s interesting and certainly heartbreaking, but it certainly marks a step up for women since 1973. Frankly, I’ll take today’s biting, assured Berlin over the Kid as a wet bathmat, any day.

Finally, there is Mark Ruffalo, hot in ways that no other director has imagined before, in Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003).  Obliterating his bruised little boy persona, Ruffalo plays a Lower Manhattan police detective, very, very good at his areas of expertise: the investigation of murder and the infinite ways of making love.  Direct, inherently confident (“Never apologize,” Campion told him, “you never apologize”), with an obligatory Zapata mustache, Ruffalo is unforgettable – with nothing whatever to apologize for.

[This isn’t an apology either: I cribbed these thoughts about Mark Ruffalo from a full-length essay about In the Cut included in The X List: the National Society of Film Critics Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On.  That’s okay, I wrote it.]