I get no pleasure in reporting what a disaster "Margaret" is. The follow-up film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, whose debut was the practically perfect "You Can Count on Me," "Margaret" for a long time seemed to be a movie that wasn't ever going to get released. Shot in 2005, the movie was delayed when Fox balked at its original three-hour running time. Then came years of editing, reediting and a fight in the courts. Now it's finally here in a 149-minute version, and I have to say it's no misunderstood masterpiece. "Margaret" definitely doesn't work at this length. I'm not sure it would have worked at any length.
The film stars Anna Paquin as Lisa, a privileged New York City teen who one day witnesses a horrific accident. Even worse, she feels partly responsible for what happened: She had been trying to get the attention of a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) while he was on his route, which caused him to go right through a red light and kill an unsuspecting pedestrian (Allison Janney). Initially she lies to the police, saying that the light was green, because she feels bad for the driver. But the more she thinks about it, the more she wonders if she should do the right thing and tell the truth, even if it means the driver loses his job.
I've just described the central plot of "Margaret," but this sprawling, ambitious movie has much, much more that it wants to cover. A combination of coming-of-age tale, middle-aged love story, legal melodrama, and 9/11 commentary, "Margaret" wanders to and fro as Lisa wrestles with her conscience while going to school, fighting with her divorced mother, speaking to her father who lives in Los Angeles, losing her virginity, interacting with several different teachers, and getting more involved in the investigation into the accident. That's a lot for one film to tackle, and there's actually more that goes on -- including a major subplot concerning her theater actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Paquin's "True Blood" co-star) -- but "Margaret" is a film of excellent intentions and compelling ideas that never comes together into a coherent whole.
A large part of the problem is the way Lonergan and Paquin have imagined Lisa. She's meant to be an idealistic, sometimes combative young person trying to cope with the emotional trauma of watching a woman die, but "Margaret" never convinced me that she was anything more than a spoiled, insular brat. That's hardly a deal-breaker in and of itself, but the movie keeps hinting that there are more layers to her than that -- that she's actually going through some sort of redemption and personal awakening. Lonergan did this brilliantly in "You Can Count on Me" with the Laura Linney character, a seemingly unlikable person whose wounded heart soon became apparent. But that transformation doesn't happen in "Margaret": Instead, Lisa glides from encounter to encounter, bruising and squabbling with those around her as he she tries to make peace with the accident she thinks she helped cause. It's a performance that always puts us on the outside looking in. We're meant to care about her, but the film never gives us ample reason as to why.
In the process of making a grand-canvas movie -- that's what all the shots of the New York City skyline are for -- Lonergan wants to have lots of characters and lots of themes. ("Margaret" may set the record for the most scenes in classrooms in which the schoolwork discussions are meant to represent everything that the movie's about. Geez, why can't a Shakespeare play just be a Shakespeare play for once in a film?) It's impossible to know if Lonergan's original cut would have tied together the plot's disparate threads in a more meaningful way, but what we have in front of us is almost maddeningly random and disjointed. (From scene to scene, it's almost impossible to guess which of the supporting characters Lisa will interact with. Maybe it'll be Matt Damon's understanding teacher. Maybe it'll be Kieran Culkin's flirtatious classmate. Maybe it's time for another scene involving the accident investigation.) As it is now, there's almost a subliminal, intuitive connection between sequences, but the larger meanings are out of reach. You want to encourage promising talents to dream big and swing for the fences, but you also have to acknowledge that sometimes when they try they strike out. "Margaret" is a fascinating, bracing misfire, but it's a misfire all the same.