Review: Lonergan’s Pretentious ‘Margaret’ Should Have Stayed on the Shelf

All the editors (and lawyers) Fox Searchlight could muster can’t make his messy sophomore effort — filmed in 2005 — worth watching

The travails of “Margaret,” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to his hit indie debut “You Can Count on Me,” are the stuff of long, schadenfreude-laced magazine articles.

Filmed in 2005, the movie has been the subject of countless edits and even more lawsuits, and it hits theaters boasting a lead actress who has grown up significantly off-screen and two producers (Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella) who are, sadly, no longer with us.

But let’s put all that aside and talk about the movie, which is finally hitting theaters. Its lag time on the shelf shows periodically — from references to sitting president George W. Bush to flip phones to a movie theater that’s showing “Roll Bounce” — but anachronism is the least of its problems.

“Margaret” is a mess, a pretentious, talky bore that feels like an amalgamation of workshopped theater ideas thrown at the wall in the hopes that any one of them will stick. The film wants to be about the solipsism of youth, the after-effects of 9/11, and the corrosive power of guilt, but the end result is exasperating and pointless. It’s the kind of movie you want to send into time-out just to make it shut up already.

Anna Paquin, at an age when she could still play high school students, stars as Lisa Cohen, who apparently attends the most lax secondary institution on earth. (At various points in the film, she’s caught red-handed cheating on a geometry test and smoking pot, but both infractions merely earn a tut-tut from her teachers.)

She strings along a nice guy (John Gallagher Jr.) who likes her but sleeps with a jerk (Kieran Culkin) who has a girlfriend, and she gets into screechy arguments with a Middle Eastern classmate (Hina Abdullah) about the nature of terrorism.

(No one in the film is named Margaret, incidentally — that’s a reference to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” which a teacher played by Matthew Broderick reads in one scene. It’s a good thing they didn’t call the movie “King Lear,” since that play is referred to far more often.)

One day, Lisa distracts bus driver Maretti (Mark Ruffalo) as he’s pulling away from the curb, and he runs a red light and fatally hits pedestrian Monica (Allison Janney). In her initial report to the police, Lisa vouches for Maretti, telling the cops that the light was green and that Monica jaywalked, but she becomes haunted by guilt after befriending Monica’s friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin).

After confessing what really happened, Lisa and Emily try to bring civil suit against the MTA in the hopes of getting Maretti fired.

While this rather unengaging story line drags itself out, Lisa’s actor mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) is gearing up to star in a new Broadway show, and she attracts the attention of South American smoothie Ramon (Jean Reno, with a ridiculous accent). And Lisa’s dad (Lonergan) attempts to stay close to his daughter via long-distance calls from Malibu, even though he’s clearly distracted by work and by his sexy young second wife.

And then Lisa seduces a teacher (Matt Damon) who’s actually been nice to her. And then Ramon and Emily get into an argument about Palestine. And then …

How can a movie this loaded with incident be so utterly, crushingly dull? Perhaps it’s because Lisa herself is such a non-entity — never interesting or fleshed-out enough to be despicable, she’s merely an irritating coat-rack where Lonergan attempts to hang up any number of concepts and metaphors.

Defenders of the filmmaker claim that his three-hour director’s cut is a masterpiece — the current 149-minute version was assembled by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker and released with Lonergan’s blessings — but what we’re seeing now flails about in an unsuccessful attempt at conveying anything remotely adjacent to relevance.

If there’s one performer in the cast who stands out amidst the blather, it’s Jeannie Berlin, who isn’t afraid to find moments of drollery in scenes about death or to turn on a dime from coddling Lisa’s adolescent whining to ripping her a new one. Berlin rouses “Margaret” from its self-satisfied slumber, and her every appearance is a reminder that this movie — and the movies in general — could use a lot more of her.

As for Paquin, well, she’ll survive this fiasco, particularly since she’s gone on to do so much more interesting work. It’s not her fault that the character is such a monstrous concoction that no actress could have made her any more compelling than Paquin does.

If the moviegoing audience at large ever gets to see Lonergan’s edit of “Margaret,” and if it does indeed turn out to be great, then that will be cause for celebration. But the version that’s being inflicted onto movie theaters now makes you wonder why they didn’t bury it in a salt mine for another 60.