Talking Movies

February 24, 2012

Margaret

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was shot in 2005 and delayed ever since by squabbling over its running time, but it’s only intermittently worth the wait…

Anna Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a deeply unpleasant privileged NYC teenager whose selfish actions cause Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver to run over a pedestrian. This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll ever see as Paquin comforts the dying Monica (Allison Janney), whose horrific injury remains just about off-screen. Lonergan wanders off on a Kieran Culkin-heavy tangent about drug-taking and teenage sex, before showcasing Matthew Broderick fighting a student over the correct interpretation of a couplet in King Lear (perilously similar to a scene in The Corrections), and multiple politics classes ending in shouting matches over Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Meanwhile Lisa’s actress mother Joan is nervous about her play transferring to Broadway, and is pursuing a bizarrely scripted romance with Jean Reno. Endless montages of NYC throughout perhaps cue this as a study of post-9/11 hysterical anger.

Lonergan’s celebrated play This Is Our Youth (staged at the Project in 2009 with Charlie Murphy) was an acute portrayal of emotionally abusive male friendships, while his directorial debut You Can Count On Me (2000) was a warm study of sibling camaraderie in the face of diverging lives. Margaret, by contrast, achieves his usual unpredictability only thru utter aimlessness. Focus belatedly arrives when Lisa decides to atone for her own guilt by starting a legal crusade to punish the bus driver for killing Monica. The film becomes draining as Lisa’s increasingly obnoxious/deranged behaviour leads to so many abrasive (and always needlessly escalating) shouting matches that you wish Olivia Thirlby would drop a heavy book on her classmate. If Kenneth Lonergan wanted to write for Curb Your Enthusiasm so bad back in 2005 why didn’t he just ring Larry David and ask?

There is much to admire in Margaret. Lonergan’s theatrical dialogue is as potently witty and expressive as ever and produces many crackling sequences, not least some stunningly astringent scenes between despairing mother and monstrous daughter. It’s great fun spotting pre-fame Rosemarie DeWitt as Ruffalo’s wife and pre-Juno Thirlby as the voice of reason in the strident politics class. Lonergan even gives himself a droll supporting role as Lisa’s absent father. The title comes from a Hopkins couplet, “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for”, but if Lonergan was attempting to make some Donnean point about how the senseless death of one person affects us all, he just leaves the audience as confused as cameoing Matt Damon’s consistently perplexed looking teacher.

Margaret runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes. I have no idea what point Lonergan is trying to make in that time. And I think the studio, which insisted Margaret be cut from 3 hours, didn’t believe he’d any idea either…

3/5

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May 25, 2011

‘I need to do more theatre’

I was struck, reading the Win Win press release, by the sheer amount of theatre work, and acclaimed theatre work at that, undertaken by the lead actors.

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“I could be doing that new LaBute play right now”


Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young all have theatre resumes as long as your arm, while Bobby Cannavale, presumably feeling guilty about his lack of theatre work, finally hit Broadway in 2008, and won a Tony nod for his troubles. What’s interesting about the resumes of this particular clutch of actors is the picture it builds up of what good actors, interested in telling emotionally engaging human stories, really want to do. Looking at the plays that they’ve done you can expand out to include more related works to create a convincing picture of just what actors have in mind when they sigh in interviews for crummy films – ‘I need to do more theatre’.

The plays explicitly mentioned in the press release include works by Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov, Stoppard, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Neil LaBute, Theresa Reback, David Rabe, and Lanford Wilson. You could add to that list a select clutch of other names: Mamet, Sophocles, Pinter, Beckett, Lorca, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Shepard, Strindberg, Friel, Hare, Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Kenneth Lonergan, John Logan, Martin Crimp. There’s a hit list of great plays and juicy roles every actor wants to have a shot at, and it boils down to a desire to do both the classics (ancient and modern) and interesting new work, which is hilariously contradictory, and also would take up all your life for very little pay if you eschewed film and TV work to do it. But…you can’t help but think that sometimes actors feel, as when Aaron Eckhart lamented to the L&H in UCD ‘I need to do more theatre….’, that it might be a more fulfilling if far less lucrative choice to concentrate on theatre.

Those great plays are nearly always the things I think of when watching good actors in bad movies, when a look of despair/desperation that doesn’t belong to the character they’re playing seems to convey the inner thought process the actor has slipped into: “God. I killed as Teach in American Buffalo a few years ago, now I’m having a nightmare within a nightmare within a really crummy exploitation vampire noir; which in some categorisations might be a nightmare. I need to do more theatre.” I will neither confirm nor deny I have someone from the movie Rise: Blood Hunter in mind when I write that…

This is not to engage in the snobbery, that theatre is a purer art form than cinema, which drove cinephile Michael Fassbender to quit the Drama Centre. It’s merely to recognise that, bar exceptional roles like James Bond, Batman and their ilk, it’s not possible in cinema to measure yourself against the standard set by actors past by taking on an unchanging role. That compulsion, which drove Jude Law to play Hamlet, ensures theatre remains an off-screen siren call…

Pygmalion

The Abbey, almost a century belatedly, premieres Shaw’s popular masterpiece in a sparkling production.

Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady without the music as some people will insist on regarding it, sees arrogant Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins take in hand a flower-girl who comes to him for elocution lessons after he’s alarmed her by transcribing her dialect in Covent Garden. He will do much more than change her screeching Cockerney accent into serviceable shop girl King’s English though, as, to win a bet with fellow phonetician Colonel Pickering, he undertakes to transform Eliza Doolittle into an imitation Duchess within six months and pass her off at a Royal Ball as such. Director Annabelle Comyn’s oddly revealing staging of the bathroom scene emphasises that Higgins really is stripping Eliza not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims.

Charlie Murphy, who impressed in Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hander This Is Our Youth at the Project in 2009, makes a wonderful Eliza Doolittle. Her physical transformation from filthy flower-girl to elegant faux-duchess is archetypal, while vocally her transition from East End to RP tones is impeccable and includes a coldness to Higgins in their final scenes that captures the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on. Nick Dunning, who Fassbendered his way across the Abbey stage in summer 2009 as Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals, enjoys himself greatly as the mild-mannered Colonel Pickering. He’s outdone though by Risteard Cooper who whoops it up as Henry Higgins, adopting an almost permanent squint and crouching impetuousness to convey a man intellectually so above his company as to be permanently impatient with their opinions and manners.

Shaw’s comedic highlights come before the interval, as after the ball Eliza and Henry go at each other in terrific arguments about class, identity, equality and manners, and what highlights they are. Lorcan Cranitch makes a hilarious appearance as Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle, self-proclaimed member of the undeserving poor wha’ can’t afford middle-class morali’y, and Hugh O’Connor (in a surprisingly small role after Valentine in last year’s Arcadia) is painfully funny as a Freddy so inept that he seems on the point of being overwhelmed by his own suit. Higgins’ many outrageous insults are delivered with gusto, while Eliza’s first appearance as a lady at Mrs Higgins’ ‘at-home’ is painfully funny; especially her wonderful dismissal of the idea of walking home as she exits, ‘Not bloody likely!’, and Clara’s declaration that she will use this ‘new small talk’ at her next ‘at-home’ – a prospect Higgins vigorously encourages, ‘Don’t be afraid to pitch it in strong!’

I’ve often complained that Shaw’s characters can sound less like human beings and more like power-point presentations of rival debating positions when they clash intellectually, but here, just as Paul O’Mahony’s realistic set slides apart on its top layer to reveal the bathroom of Higgins’ house and the sun-windows of his mother’s house, the play of ideas is never allowed to escape from its emotional origins in Eliza’s anguish and Higgins’ arrogance. Eliza’s reproaches sting, but Higgins’ closing creed of equality – ‘I treat a duchess as if she were a flower-girl’ – has oddly never sounded more meritocratic…

Comyn’s directorial resume is chock-full of contemporary plays, which is a testament to how incisive Shaw’s comic dissection of the intersections of class and speech was – people can still make other people despise them merely by opening their mouths…

4/5

Pygmalion continues its run at the Abbey until the 11th of June.

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