While everyone else has picked apart the differences between the Snyder and Whedon cuts of the Justice League films, this film nerd spent 5 1/2 hours poring over the two versions of a little seen film from 2005 which went from fascinating 2 1/2 hour mess to out and out masterpiece on its journey to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s 3 hour extended cut, which finally surfaced in 2011.
Just a few years after 9/11, Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Manchester By The Sea) captured a New York City still on edge, when a glance at a jet in the sky still triggered a fearful response. In such an environment, we meet Lisa Cohen (a then 23 year old, pre-True Blood Anna Paquin), a petulant student at an elite prep school who seems to thrive on coming in hot during any debate with a classmate when she’s not crushing on her teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon). It’s clear from the outset that Lisa—who lives with her single mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a stage actor on the brink of success, and her younger brother—thrives on drama, anger, and a general feeling that the world revolves around her.
On one of her whims, she decides to go shopping for a cowboy hat in anticipation of an upcoming ranch vacation with her L.A.-based father Karl, played with low-key assurance by Lonergan himself. Out of nowhere, she notices Maretti (Mark Ruffalo) who has a pretty cool hat on as he drives his bus past her. Trying to stop him, they have enough semi-flirtatious exchanges to distract him and cause a terrible accident. Without spoiling anything, the victim, an Academy Award-winning actor, makes an unforgettable impression with just a couple of minutes screen time. Lisa, so disturbed by the aftermath, spends the remainder of the story seeking out some sort of justice for the victim.
What could have easily descended into a dull, TV movie, turns out to be a way ahead of its time indictment of virtue signaling, entitlement, racial and class privilege, and unfettered self-involvement. With several scenes restored, and the Robert Altman-esque technique of overhearing multiple conversations at once, Lonergan’s point, that we have all, at times, wrongly felt that our story is the most important one, gets strongly underscored with his cut. With motivations unclear or out of nowhere in key moments of the original, Lonergan fixes those issues and has produced a clear, sometimes meandering, but powerful, emotionally wrenching experience.
Said meandering, in fact, enhances the storytelling, forcing you to focus on the subtext rather than the tried and true legal machinations. We watch Lisa lose her virginity in a cringe-worthy but somehow touching sequence. A very young at the time, John Gallagher Jr. will break your heart when getting dumped by Lisa. Matt Damon, whose character didn’t make a lot of sense in the original cut, brings a palpable awkwardness to his many scenes with Lisa. Paquin, who I feel has never been better, takes her characterization way over the edge, fearlessly ignoring or not caring that she comes across as a spoiled brat. She never hesitates to shout over anyone, not caring a whit about anyone’s perceptions of her. She has a long way to go towards behaving like an adult, and this film never pretends that a magic bullet exists to get her there.
Adding to the maturity of this work, this cast, stacked with such accomplished names as Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Michael Ealy, and Jeannie Berlin, along with those aforementioned, help create a vast, specific world for Lisa to inhabit. In a career-best performance, Berlin in particular galvanizes with her prickly, outspoken, Emily, a close friend of the victim who refuses to let Lisa inflict her immaturity on her without repercussions. Emily describes the victim as impossible to get along with, but watch her tear apart her supposed best friend Dave (Michael Ealy) with aggressions, micro-aggressions, and flat out insults, and you’re bearing witness to a layered, difficult supporting character we rarely get to see. Emily is the center of her own story, and damned if she’s gonna let Lisa knock her off her perch. The scene in which she cuts loose on the teen is an instant, 16 years in the making classic. An Oscar nominee for 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, Berlin, after a long break, has delivered astounding performances in recent years, none more so than her Oscar-worthy turn here.
J. Smith-Cameron, who has gone on to memorable turns in Succession and Search Party, and is married to Lonergan, also gives a fantastic performance as Lisa’s insecure but adventurous mother. Typical films about teens don’t tend to explore the sexuality of the parents, but her Joan has complexity, nuance, and an endless amount of justified frustration.
Margaret, a name in an important poem read in the middle of the film, failed at the box office upon initial release in 2011, after 6 years of legal battles. It’s a terrible shame for a film which has finally found its rightful placement as truly great. If you’re looking for more action, more CGI, more capes, then you know where to go. But flip through the same streaming service if you want something confrontational, rough, and a truly seminal look at a teen you haven’t seen before.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Margaret is now streaming on HBO Max. The Extended Cut can be found in the Extras section of the original version’s home page.