Margaret: It’s difficult to discuss Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret without calling attention to its reported (yet still somewhat murky) post-production circumstances: shot in 2005 (The 40-Year-Old Virgin appears on the AMC 84th Street marquee) and then held up in editing and legal hell for almost six years, Longergan’s follow-up to You Can Count on Me finally escapes with a 150-minute running time—halfway between the alleged preferences of Fox Searchlight and Lonergan himself—and one of those releases that feels like a contractual obligation.
The move itself, though, feels beholden to no one, sometimes gloriously so. Lonergan follows Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a smart and sometimes smugly self-aware teenager attending Upper West Side private school. We see her charm her math teacher (Matt Damon) out of a cheating accusation, flirtily sidestep a nervous classmate kinda-sorta asking for a date, and shop for a cowboy hat for her upcoming trip out West to visit her dad. Then she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), who runs a red light and hits a pedestrian (Allison Janney), who dies in Lisa’s arms.
Lisa comes home to her UWS apartment with literal blood on her hands, for the rest of the movie, stirs a brew of guilt, grief, and teenage melodrama, which Lonergan vaguely parallels with 9/11 survivor guilt. In her progressive classroom, Lisa argues vehemently for destroying terrorists, and becomes similarly convinced that the bus driver must be punished for his mistake—both of them instinctively lie in their police reports, claiming that the light was green. So yes, this sounds like the kind of indie where either the teenage girl takes horrible misguided revenge in a series of tragic misunderstandings, or she forms an unexpected bond with the driver or maybe the victim’s family. But Margaret is something bigger, stranger, more unwieldy. Lonergan, a playwright, has great skill with dialogue, and loves to let his characters reveal themselves through the way they talk and argue and argue about the way they talk, but the running time doesn’t result in epic Tarantino-length scenes—rather, we see dozens of sharp snippets, scenes that often end without direct resolution.
With two and a half hours, Lonergan has time to give plenty of those snippets to Lisa’s actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), wooed by the elegantly self-satisfied Frenchman Maretti (Jean Reno!), as well Lisa’s classmates, would-be boyfriends, and teachers. The movie’s expansiveness also has a peculiar Where’s Waldo-ish effect, including, as it does, bit players from 2005 who have since graduated to full on supporting or co-lead status in other movies: Olivia Thirlby, Krysten Ritter and Please Give‘s Sarah Steele all make fleeting appearances, making the cast seem even more sprawling than it is. (This is as good a time as any to mention that none of the characters are named Margaret; the title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem mentioned by English teacher Matthew Broderick.)
In lingering on the kinds of observational scenes that many filmmakers would cut, the film doesn’t shy away from the tediousness or unpleasantness of humanity, like good-hearted friend-of-the-deceased Emily (Jeannie Berlin), who irritatingly but realistically screeches with impatience whenever she has even a moment of trouble understanding anyone else. That kind of prickly, agitated communication (or failure thereof) is everywhere in the movie; Lisa is argumentative and ready for verbal fights, spat out with righteousness by Paquin in living rooms, police precincts, classrooms, and restaurants. Many movies pay lip service to the idea that teenagers feel misunderstood; this one dramatizes the way that feeling can follow you through life.
Much of this absorbing and wonderfully volatile, if overreaching—a subplot about a possible lawsuit against the bus company drags on, and Lisa seems to reach catharsis a solid three or four times before the movie can move forward. Lonergan also wastes precious seconds of his hotly disputed screentime with repeated cuts to New York skyline and occasional forays into dreamy shots of busy sidewalks (particularly in the opening credits—this is what you fought for years to show us?!), directorly indulgences from someone far more at home with writerly ones.
Lonergan is obviously more than just a good writer, as he gets excellent performances out of just about everyone involved. Maybe it’s a question of medium; with its combination of minute details and far-reaching ambition, Margaret feels structured more like a novel, or a TV series, or a play—just about anything but a feature film, really. Yet it’s exactly that ill fit that makes the movie an unpredictable experience—two and a half hours of intense, imperfect communication.
50/50: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite actors working; at his best, his scrappiness turns chameleonic, finding diverse survival tactics as a teenage detective (Brick), a troubled prostitute (Mysterious Skin), an injured janitor (The Lookout), and a square-ish dream invader (Inception), among others. On his way into full adulthood, though, JGL sometimes strains when he has to appear, well, normal. He’s charming in (500) Days of Summer, but in that movie as well as 50/50, you can see the strain in trying to make his sweater-wearing, messenger-bag-toting characters not seem too weird or intense—which only makes him seem like he relates more to the weirdos.
In 50/50, he plays a nice regular guy with a rare form of spinal cancer, and the character doesn’t really come alive until he’s up against a wall, brushing off earnest, green therapist Anna Kendrick. Early on, Gordon-Levitt plays opposite Seth Rogen as his best buddy (the movie is written by Will Reiser, an actual friend and colleague of Rogen’s who went through a similarly harrowing experience), but when Rogen does some patented conversational riffing, Gordon-Levitt steps back with generic lines about how Rogen is being ridiculous or vulgar; he doesn’t jump in and riff back. Some of this is probably in the writing, but it’s a dispiritingly old-model version of dude friendship (the kind where you say, ok, so why are they best friends?). The movie gets better, though, and Gordon-Levitt has excellent scenes opposite both Rogen and Kendrick (less so with Bryce Dallas Howard, wasted in an interesting idea for a part—the girlfriend who can’t deal with her guy’s disease—mired in lazy writing). In the end, 50/50 is almost a little too respectable; it could use some of the messiness of a good indie, or even an Apatow comedy. But what could come off as a phony, contrived weepie feels surprisingly organic and sweet.
What’s Your Number?: Another personal favorite performer of mine has a movie out this weekend: Anna Faris, who is, stay with me now, sort of to film critics as Beyonce is to rock critics (that is to say that a lot of critics who do not usually care much for the type of movies Faris makes are vocal admirers of her work in those movies) (or perhaps this is just to say that I adore Anna Faris and Beyonce). Fans like me have been waiting for a solid five or six years now, for the movie that will do for her what 40-Year-Old Virgin did for Steve Carell, or what Anchorman did for Will Ferrell. Being a hilarious lady, she stars in far fewer movies than her hilarious male counterparts, which is good for her scene-stealing bona fides (she didn’t need to carry Just Friends, Observe and Report, May, or Lost in Translation to walk away with all or part of them) but impedes her overall career progress.
Realistically, What’s Your Number? is probably not The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Bridesmaids, or Anchorman, or Easy A, or Mean Girls, or any number of comedies that made comic stars out of various people. More likely will complete a Faris trilogy of movies that she takes from passable to highly enjoyable: Smiley Face, The House Bunny, and this one, about Faris reading an article claiming that women with twenty or more sex partners are far less likely to get married, and embarking upon a tour of exes to find a possibly discarded One. As far as high-rom-com-cepts go, it beats “two girls want to get married on the same day” or “love actually is all around us,” but it does seem to fit into that House Bunny zone of potentially subversive, potentially stupid, and settling into a comfortable middle ground of ok-ness. But look, getting to watch Faris act goofy for ninety minutes is a distinct pleasure, even when the script isn’t there (and it almost never has been), and her costars here—L Magazine actor of the decade Chris Evans; Ari Graynor; plus Joel McHale, Chris Pratt, Andy Samberg, Thomas Lennon, and Martin Freeman as exes—will certainly offer more help than she usually gets.
Dream House: Jim Sheridan used to be Ireland’s favorite son, directing Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father (and helping him get Oscar nominations before it was cool!), as well as the lovely In America. The latter was never as big a hit as it seemed like it should’ve been, and I’m not sure if that’s why Sheridan seems to be chasing studio genres more than before, or if that’s just the kind of work you have to take on as a mid-level director who doesn’t want to make movies about Marvel heroes. He directed 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (it’s true!); he tried his hand at non-Irish drama with Brothers (a well-acted but forgettable movie); and now he’s straight up doing a ghost story with the long-delayed and mostly unscreened Dream House. As ghost stories go, it has a tony pedigree, with Sheridan directing Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts, and it may or may not be the kind of movie that gives away its big twist in the trailer (I have to assume that there are further twists, or that the twist actually happens about thirty minutes into the movie, or that it’s not really a twisty movie at all).