I was twenty-one years old when I saw the three-and-a-half hour cut of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. The late and great Sydney Pollack was in attendance in the New York theater. I was writing for The Oscar Igloo then, probably within my first year of employment. I didn’t even understand the concept or potential of film criticism yet. I was in my senior year of college and was just hired as a teacher for a little catholic high school in the area. I still had the obsession of becoming an actor and didn’t realize that my passion was in critiquing. I loved film but I didn’t know how I could be “with” it for all eternity.
I was invited to the screening by a local company that sits outside theaters and hands out flyers for “free movies.” How could I resist? My two friends at the time and I jumped at this opportunity. At the time, Anna Paquin was my celebrity crush. I don’t know exactly why that was. I think it was because I saw her win the Oscar for Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). There was something really attractive about the girl I saw, unable to speak a word to say “thank you.” An eleven year old Clayton just swooned.
The host of the film went up to make the general announcements; “no cell phones, no recording devices of any kind.” We were told we were watching the unfinished cut. No musical score had been added and credits would not run before or after. All this was fine with me but then he said, “please enjoy the film and by the way it’s three-and-a-half hours.” Grunts and complaints filled the room but not enough time for anyone to make a run for it because seconds later, the lights dimmed and the film began.
I sat there, watching something I didn’t really understand, and becoming exceedingly frustrated with Lonergan’s film. I found Paquin over-the-top and unfocused. I found the film unrealistic, full of terrible dialogue, and an unrecognizable Lonergan that became self-indulged in his own consciousness of dialogue and issue.
I wrote a review for Johnny Alba and the Oscar Igloo that night. He ran it the next day and it’s one of the few films I gave a ½ (half-star) review. It was one of the first professional reviews I ever wrote. Here’s an excerpt:
There’s randomness such as pornography, masturbation, Anna Paquin screaming, adultery, virginity losing, more Anna Paquin screaming, classroom debates, it goes on and on into the gateway called Hell. This was the biggest wannabe Magnolia meets Crash but rather was Showgirls meets Gigli. I hope every reader of this review sees the film because if I went through that excruciating pain, I want you all to feel it too. It’s selfish but I can’t comprehend how and why someone could watch that film and say “Wow! What a good movie!” Performances are weak, script is terrible, everything is just plain awful. This is out of contention and if critics like it then I give up. Over three hours is entirely way too long for a movie to make no sense and be that bad. Paquin better get back on the ball or just enjoy that Oscar she has and give up film making. Ruffalo is decent but writing brings him down greatly. Janney is brief but not too bad and the rest of the cast including Kieran Culkin, Matt Damon, and Matthew Broderick are all unnecessary and ill-mannered in this gutless tale of guilt, betrayal, and too many topics that you don’t want to bring up because you just don’t care to. Wait until you find out the meaning of the title, that’s when the downward spiral happens into despair and self-loathing.
Besides being poorly written, that was one of the harshest things I ever wrote about a film. During the film, about a dozen audience members stormed out and didn’t finish the screening. I stayed, completely frustrated, but I stayed. After the screening I went up to Sydney Pollack to say “hello” and the first thing he says to me, “thank you for staying.” That was a sign. I said to him “you’re welcome,” very ballsy move for a young man who was in the middle of meeting one of cinemas most famous directors/actors. I lied to him though. Completely afraid of looking like a jackass, I said I liked it. I couldn’t face to tell him that this was cinematic manure. Nonetheless, I got to shake the great Pollack’s hand and indulge in a brief moment with him despite the fact, he looked clearly upset with what happened in the screening. That was in 2005 and I’ve dreaded the opening of this film ever since. When I heard about the debacle between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight over the final cut, it seemed like it would never be resolved and I was happy. Good for Fox Searchlight for recognizing garbage and not allowing it to be released to the world, I thought. Enter 2011. Many critics, including our own Joey Magidson and Robert Hamer saw the new cut that sat at two-and-a-half hours, more than an hour less than what I witnessed years prior, and both gave it positive reviews. Both praised Paquin’s honest performance along with J. Smith Cameron and Jeannie Berlin’s supporting turns. I cringed. I couldn’t believe it. How could anyone like what I saw nearly six years ago? After convincing myself that Joey and Robert are valued members of my team and I shouldn’t fire them for undeclared insanity, I wondered if I missed something in Margaret.
About a week ago, I received a copy of the film which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on July 10. Curiosity set in and I was intrigued to see if time would give me a different perspective on something that I loathed at the age of 21.
This new cut, which was edited by Academy Award winners Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, had a new life I didn’t see seven years ago. From the opening sequence and shots of beautiful New York City, along with a painted beautiful score by Nick Muhly, I thought I’d be in for a treat. Everything leading to the bus accident scene was brilliant. A naïve and simple Anna Paquin, awkwardly moving and speaking to boys, completely oblivious to the world and what it has to offer was one of the better things I’ve seen all year. Besides feeling like I traveled back in time and saw Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, and Paquin look ten years younger, the film’s first thirty minutes is one of the finest things seen in a very long time.
Margaret is a character study, not sure if I knew that years ago. Here we have this young girl Lisa Cohen, perhaps one of the worst protagonists created in our new millennium, and all she wants to do is do an adult gesture that her young mind cannot fully comprehend. Paquin gives it a valiant effort, attempting to create a dynamic character the viewer can fully get behind. Despite the feeling that Paquin dives too deep and still seems over-the-top, I can appreciate the fact that I can say, at 28-years-old, I found Margaret to be satisfactory. The classroom debates speaking passionately about 9/11 and the various cultures that surround it are some of the film’s best moments. I instantly could see this time around why others would find the brilliance in Lonergan’s direction and dialogue, even though I may not agree. It’s a daring attempt and no fault can be made for a chance being taken for the art of filmmaking.
I found myself exceedingly taken this time by J. Smith Cameron in the role of Joan, Lisa’s ill-advised actress mother. Cameron delivers an honest and raw performance that is easily best-in-show. She’s a great secret kept from 2011. In their brief roles, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, and Matthew Broderick are mere acting wallpaper that don’t offer any added depth to their roles. I find Jean Reno and his character a complete waste, unneeded, and unimaginative. Jeannie Berlin, as the lovable Emily, is an adequate performer that shows intensity at all the most appropriate moments.
In terms of the choices Scorsese and Schoonmaker made with the final cut, there is still an unfocused and uneven story that doesn’t allow the film to move substantially to another place. The narrative is honest, which is most appreciated, but sometimes honesty is not the best policy. There’s a texture that doesn’t blend well with these character flavors that Lonergan creates. There’s still a self-indulgence that’s evident but as the time wears long, instead of anger setting in, it was merely disappointment. Disappointed that the film could have been one of, if not, the best thing of any given year. However, due to pride and a messy legal match, Margaret will have to settle for a tender-hearted story that never lived up to its full potential.
From ½ (half a star), I can proudly raise Margaret to a (**½) film with hints of greatness. Perhaps it was age or the sheer inexperience of film and what it can be that kept me at a distance seven years ago. Maybe the one hour cut were the ugly parts that Scorsese and Schoonmaker extracted one frame at a time. Margaret is worth a view.