Eleven years ago, esteemed playwright Kenneth Lonergan's debut movie, You Can Count on Me, received many accolades and a couple of Oscar nominations. He shot his second film, Margaret, in 2005. It has taken years of reedits and backstage wrangling for it to reach the screen. As it stands now in a final two-and-a-half-hour cut, Margaret is an ungainly mess, full of interesting moments and top-tier actors but extremely scattered.
It doesn't help that in nearly every scene is a strident and annoying teenager. This 17-year-old's self-centered behavior is age-appropriate, and her desire to be morally uncompromising is quixotic - but that doesn't make her any more likable. Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a well-to-do New York City prep-school kid who feels partially responsible for a fatal bus accident that occurred because she was distracting the driver (Mark Ruffalo).
Over the course of the film, Lisa seeks advice from a variety of adults, all of whom fail her in one way or another. Her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), an actress, is caught up with the premiere of her new play and a new suitor (Jean Reno). Teachers at Lisa's school (Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick) are ineffective advisers, and she grows more and more agitated during class discussions. Eventually, she finds a kindred soul in Emily (Jeannie Berlin), possibly the only person in Manhattan more annoying than Lisa. Interspersed are numerous tangential scenes, including a couple at the opera during which we get to hear several minutes of Renée Fleming in performance.
However realistic Lonergan's portrait of the high-drama teenage years may be, it doesn't make Margaret come together as a whole. Of course, there's no telling what his director's cut would look like; supposedly he could never settle on anything he liked. Margaret definitely has many elements for a successful drama. It's unfortunate that no one was able to shape them into a functional movie.