Denouement: Can an Ambitious Failure Still Be Worth Seeing?
This came up again recently because of "Margaret," the long-delayed coming-of-age drama from "You Can Count on Me" writer-director Kenneth Lonergan that I didn't much like at all. It's intelligent, thoughtful, and provocative. It wants to move you and challenge you. But it's a failure, at least in my book. So why am I curious to see it again?
My colleague Karina Longworth summarized this sensation in a tweet connected to her L.A. Weekly review, saying that "Margaret" was "messy but kind of a must-see." Longworth likes the film more than I do, but even she essentially admits that it's full of grand ideas that are often more impressive in their conception than in the execution. ("It's less successful as a human drama than as a near-Brechtian exercise in what human drama looks and sounds like — a distanced but often car-crash-compelling portrait of a teen [played by Anna Paquin] as an unfinished being.") Do most people want to spend their free time watching something this deeply flawed? No, but if you love movies that aspire to be great, you may want to give "Margaret" a try.
This isn't the first 2011 film that I panned that I'm really curious to revisit. "Sucker Punch" is another: Director Zack Snyder should probably stick to adapting other people's stories rather than coming up with his own ideas, but that movie's genuinely nutso, go-for-broke spirit has stayed with me, even though it gave me a headache and eyestrain. And, yet, I haven't seen anything like it this year -- nothing even close -- and so that makes me sort of appreciate it. (Those who absolutely hate "Sucker Punch" would be quick to point out that it's a very good thing that there's been nothing else like it this year.)
The more movies you see, the more they often fall into that bland category of "not bad." You know, the movie's fine, but you can't remember much about it a day later. Great movies stay with me, obviously, but I also notice that ambitious misfires do as well. They may not succeed, but they make me think about them afterward: What was the filmmaker trying to do? Why didn't it work? Was there something I missed? In a way, ambitious misfires are like a close friend's opinion that you don't agree with. Because you like the friend, you're at least willing to try to see things from his perspective, even if you ultimately decide the guy's just plain wrong. I loved "You Can Count on Me," so I find myself wanting to give "Margaret" the benefit of the doubt. That's not the same thing as liking the movie, but it's a way of showing careful consideration and respect to a filmmaker who at least doesn't want to settle for "not bad" or "fine." Really, those are the worst kinds of movies of all.