MARGARET: EXTENDED CUT (2011?, Kenneth Lonergan): 9/10
It’s early Fall 2011 and I’m exiting a theater in Culver City with two friends, Ryan and Jason, and we’ve just seen Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET, along with maybe a dozen other people who wandered into a run-down art house to see the limply released print of a film that somewhat resembled something Lonergan may have intended at some point during the 5 years it took him to make it. Ryan and Jason were extremely impressed. I was conflicted: I’d just seen a 2.5-hr film that seemed “too short,” (as I said to them at the time). Why? Because it bit off so much, and while it was trying to chew it, chunks of food were just falling on the floor instead of being properly digested. This is a huge sweeping epic American drama focusing on one teenage girl and her awkward, upsetting, disillusioning journey into maturity. And instead of attacking all of it, it seemed rushed, sloppy, and slapped together with Scotch tape when the seams should have been sewn with silk thread. I was wondering if an extra bit of time spent on the story might help me feel the way these guys did.
I wasn’t alone — its Metacritic score is 61, which is just about where I was on the movie. But the group of critics I seem to agree with the most — former friends, current friends, and alterna-crix whose taste aligns with mine more often than not — were championing the thing as a misunderstood masterpiece (going so far as to form #TeamMargaret on Twitter). They can’t be right, can they? What film did they see? Did they fill in the obviously missing gaps? Were they just seeing something they wanted to see? Or did I just miss the boat? A highly likely possibility, but then again I trust my own judgment pretty well. Luckily for me, the movie I wanted to see was about to be released 10 months later.
With 36 minutes added to the running time, MARGARET has been released on standard DVD as an “Extended Cut” tossed into the Blu-Ray package of the theatrical release. This afternoon I borrowed a copy of it from Ryan (who has purchased the Blu-Ray but not watched the extended cut yet), drove home, and decided to pop it in as my lazy Sunday activity on a 99-degree Los Angeles day. Three hours later, I’m writing this blog post a changed person. Unfortunately, I’ll still never know if it was the theatrical release that was hugely problematic (and those problems were fixed by adding 36 minutes and recutting the existing scenes) or if I just needed a second viewing to figure it out. All I know is that MARGARET: THE EXTENDED CUT is a great American film.
Let’s start with the film itself, then I’ll get into the differences. This is a movie that investigates the connections humans have to others in a complex and contentious world; one that contemplates how small, seemingly insignificant or mundane actions we take can have rippling consequences; yet how despite the volcanic upheavals certain events can cause in our lives, our next-door neighbors go on living their own private dramas, indifferent to our personal operas but suffering others themselves. The philosophy of this film is summed up in a gorgeous, long take in the middle of the movie — the camera (after another long take sweeping through the sky following an airplane over New York City in one of the film’s many assertive post-9/11 images) starts on the back of our heroine’s head as she waits for passing traffic to cease, then crosses a street and walks into a crowd of Manhattan pedestrians until she gets lost in the sea of people enduring countless other stories. It then slowly tilts up, turning each person into an ant (echoing another scene about a debate over the meaning of the Shakespeare line concerning the sport of Gods treating humans like wanton boys treat flies) as it strains its neck towards the sky and the mammoth skyscrapers hovering over us — a hostile world of millions of people (Matt Damon’s character Mr. Aaron reminds Lisa that there are actually seven billion people on the planet, so stop being so self-absorbed) who couldn’t care less about the girl that just disappeared into it… despite the fact that although she’s a stranger, her innocent actions could lead to us getting run over by a bus. This shot is Lonergan’s message — we are both insignificant and everything at once; an existential shout that even in a universe of apathy, what we do matters, and what we say to each other can be as explosive as an atom bomb.
Now about those explosions — if there are minor flaws with this film, it’s in the repetition of dramatic arguments that spin out of control into hysterics. Towards the second half of the movie, it seems every time Lisa walks into a room someone is going to be shouting within seconds. At times these arguments are magnificently done: Lisa’s early shouting match when her mother is about to go on a date with new boyfriend Ramon is achingly real and bloody. And it didn’t even bother me that Anna Paquin (who is terrific throughout this movie) lets her Kiwi accent slip out the more upset she gets — an accent that pops up over and over when Paquin unleashes primal, child-like feelings. While the Lisa character didn’t grow up in New Zealand, this lack of realism doesn’t hurt the film because I was so enamored with Paquin’s dedication to the emotions of the dialogue.
Let me now get to the structure, which is most refreshingly fixed in this Extended Cut, and the main reason I liked it so much more. It’s not that the film is any less all-over-the-place; it’s that scenes develop more, and attention is paid to every character to the same extent they were brushed off before. I still don’t think the Jean Reno stuff works that well, but for the most part this is a way more respectful cut. [SPOILER upcoming…] In the theatrical version, Lisa abruptly blurts out to Matt Damon that she had an abortion, then stumbles through some nonsense before walking away and nothing else is ever said about it. In this version, we see her mother holding the pregnancy test and then the abortion clinic visit. But the best consequence of including these scenes is not the fact that we’re no longer as surprised as Damon is (though that’s a big plus), it’s in the scene that happens in between — Lisa is at her lawyer’s office learning that justice will not be served in the Big Case. Ruffalo won’t be punished, while people she barely knows will profit greatly. In the theatrical cut, Lisa acts typically impetuous, but we have no background for her state of mind. In this cut, we know what she’s just been through, so now her behavior makes a lot more sense emotionally.
There are other great improvements here: in the theatrical cut, the score was pretty terrible. In one instance, Lisa hangs up on high school friend Darren (THE NEWSROOM’s John Gallagher, looking disturbingly young by comparison), who has a huge crush on her. While Lisa runs off to lose her virginity to the hilariously non-chalant Paul (played by Kieran Culkin in one of the best performances in the film), Darren sits on the bed and cries, to the comic twangs of horribly scored strings. In the extended cut, Lonergan keeps the practical-source jazz music playing, which is an expert choice — another case where the world moves on uncaring about what we are feeling.
I could go on, but there’s nobody left still reading this rambling review. Trust me when I say that MARGARET: EXTENDED CUT is just as long, but never rambling — it may be all over the place, but now it’s all over the place with a purpose, and loaded with scenes that do what great art needs to do: challenge your perception of where you fit in the world, and shine a spotlight on the way society bounces things back at you the way you impact it. It’s a messy film for a messy world. And I’m glad, whether it was my fault or the studio’s, I finally got to pick up what Lonergan was throwing down.