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Shot in 2005, Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to You Can Count On Me (2000) has been stuck in limbo so long two of its producers (Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack) have passed away in the interim.
Clocking in at 150 minutes – the maximum Fox Searchlight would allow yet still 30 less than its writer-director demanded – it has now arrived: unbidden, unheralded and desperately unwieldy.
Yet there remains much to admire in Lonergan’s self-styled “teen epic”, a “documentary urban opera” about a privileged high schooler from New York’s Upper West Side whose cosseted life is shaken to its core when she inadvertently causes the death of pedestrian Allison Janney.
For one thing, it has a pre- True Blood Anna Paquin, giving her not-inconsiderable all as a prickly, combative 17-year-old striving to make up for her thoughtless act and its tragic consequences.
Then there’s the cast around her, a classy ensemble that ranges from Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick as two of her teachers to Lonergan himself, and his wife J Smith-Cameron, as her far-from-perfect parents.
The main problem with Margaret – named not after Paquin’s character but one cited in a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins – lies in its self-indulgent, over-written script.
Based on a succession of testy exchanges between individuals quick to spot slights and accusations in the simplest of sentences, it undoubtedly has the ring of truth, especially in scenes that see Anna and her fellow students bickering over politics in the wake of 9/11. Yet it soon degenerates into a long, tiresome shouting match in which nothing’s resolved, making us suspect conflict’s being engineered just for the hell of it.
Selected sequences – a wordless finale at the Met, for example, or Paquin’s fumbled first shag with Kieran Culkin – have enough wit and emotion to suggest what Lonergan might have achieved. As it is, you may end up hoping Janney isn’t the only one to perish under Mark Ruffalo’s bus.
Lonergan’s long-awaited second feature proves as flawed as it is ambitious. If two and a half hours in the company of quarrelsome, self-absorbed New Yorkers don’t sound too punishing, there’s much to like.
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