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.”

*                                       *                                 *

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.

*                              *                              *

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.]

The Wonder That Is Margaret

Never, ever dismiss a grassroots movement (just ask Elizabeth Warren). Or the indignation of film critics, denied the chance to see what one of their clan has called “One of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders.”  The result has been a flurry of petitions, blog-wails and unkind aspersions directed at Fox Seachlight, from here at home and as far away as the U.K.

The fallout in Seattle has been that Kenneth Lonergan’s breathtaking Margaret got a press screening and a one-week run in one theatre, SIFF’s Uptown (backed up by no ads anywhere.)

Here’s where critics come in: with 3 ½ stars from the Seattle Times’ Moira McDonald and a strong pick-up review-let at the Weekly – and, no doubt, a buzz in every cranny of Scarecrow Video – Margaret’s healthy weekend grosses have earned it a second week, through February 9th.

The tidy among us should probably know that Margaret is almost as gloriously unruly as Anna Paquin’s Lisa herself, and that we will be following her at almost eye level for 149 minutes, as Pacquin virtually irradiates the screen.

Lisa’s divorced mother Jane (J. Smith-Cameron, simply superb) is a successful New York theatre actress and Lisa is at home in Jane’s close-knit, seductively unstable scene, and with her deeply ironic private school classmates.

Her screenwriter-father (played by Lonergan), now lives in California with a new lady, but at least makes an attempt at being in his kids’ lives. Even living with a younger brother hasn’t altered Lisa’s world view that compromise in any form is as contemptible as anyone who suggests it.  Ah yes, total idealism.

So nothing has remotely prepared her for a real-life bloody tragedy, when her flirtatiousness distracts a bus driver enough to run over a pedestrian. Slowly, then with mounting despair (and volume), Lisa sets about to do the right thing.

Which right thing?  That answer gets more muddled with each new character Lisa drags to the stage of her personal mini-opera: her mother, the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), the victim’s closest friend (a scathingly skeptical Jeannie Berlin), the police, the MTA, potential heirs, at least two lawyers, and a concerned English teacher at Lisa’s private school (Matt Damon.)


None of them will emerge unscathed, Lisa most of all.  By turns she becomes damaging, hotly destructive, sexually predatory, and genuinely dangerous to everyone around her, until with her every good intention in ruins, she finally faces her own part in the tragedy. (Interestingly enough, at an opera, the irresistibly gorgeous Tales of Hoffman.)

So, is it a cinematic wonder?  Damn straight, considering that Lonergan’s skills are deeper, broader and more nuanced than they were when he made You Can Count On Me, his unforgettable writing-directing debut 8 years ago. He seems to be an actor’s director, since every one in Margaret’s huge cast is miraculously good, and his intimate New York canvas includes the theatre and its denizens; the vagaries of the city’s private schools; teenage, both general and specific; opera and its followers, and post 9/11 America as viewed from abroad.

Lonergan’s ear may have become even more sharp: for the hearty, hollow phone chat of divorced fathers; for the escalating state of war between mothers and 17-year old daughters and, especially, for panic-inducing exchanges between teenagers:

She:  “Did any of that get inside me?”

He:    “It’s okay. . .Odds are overwhelming that it’s okay.”

But an ear is nothing without a soul, even in its excesses and our own struggle to put up with Lisa’s wicked stubbornness, Margaret is humane to a humbling degree.  (Who else but someone with Lonergan’s depths of understanding could even conceive of a positive mini-epic with teenagers at its heart?)

It is noticeably dated.  A classroom donnybrook, as a discussion spills over into the bigotry that a fellow student, of Syrian descent, has felt first-hand, in the wake of 9/11 is one of many reminders that Margaret was made when that event was still raw.

You ’ll notice that Matt Damon is in Bourne fighting trim and the hilarious Matthew Broderick, his teaching colleague, is positively coltish.  But the bus accident’s gory chaos and pandemonium around it is the most shocking reminder of that date, as much now as when it was shot.

The film’s exact time of 149 minutes was achieved by Thelma Schoonmaker (who by now should simply be called Legendary Editor.)  She arrived when  Martin Scorsese stepped in to help with the impasse between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight, who having watched their picture grow beyond its 2-hour mark, finally agreed to 150 minutes and not a second more.  Bless them all.