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.
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.
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.
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.