So this is the next film by Kenneth Longeran after his breakthrough with You Can Count On Me, and there's a bit of explanation that has to go with it. Basically, for whatever reason (and I'd LOVE to know the reasons) he was unable to finish it. I'm not sure there was even a script going all the way to the end. Anyway, it was all shot in 2005, and sat around as he tried and failed to edit it into anything coherent. Then many others stepped in to try to edit it, and it was finally edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schumacher, and thrown out into the market before it was just so old and out of date it would be unreleasable. So it comes off finally as a sort of unfinished novel, with lots of interesting stuff and a stellar cast, but ultimately just an incomplete sketch.
One other thing I have to tell you is that I had a reader write to recommend this, and I said "Ummm, it's incomplete and it's two and a half hours, so no thanks," and he politely accepted, then, a few months later, wrote back and INSISTED that I watch it. He said it has stayed on his mind the whole time. And since I respect that, It swayed me to watch the film. And I don't think it affected me as much as it did him, but let's check back in a few months! [PS: A week later I DID have a dream featuring Emily, a notable character].
It begins very promisingly. The first thing is a bus goes by very quickly, and if you know that this film is going to hinge on a bus accident, you notice that. Then we have some excellent extreme slow-motion shots of New Yorkers at intersections and walking down the street, which have the effect of making you reflect on all these little dramas going on at once on a street, everyone all with their own concerns and lives and interests. We meet Anna Paquin as Lisa, asked to stay behind by her teacher because she cheated on a test. He asks her if she's ever developed an interest in something she didn't know about initially, and she responds with a flat "No." Then a classmate asks her out on a date. Lisa is going in search of a cowboy hat because she's going riding with her dad, who lives in California. So far the film sets her up as an average, bright and precocious sophisticated Upper West Side teenage girl.
Now I'm going to mark spoilers here for those who want to see the film completely fresh, but if you can stand to know plot twists, of which there are few, I would stick around.
SPOILERS > > >
Lisa is shopping on Broadway around 84th when she sees that a passing bus driver, played by Mark Ruffalo, is wearing a cowboy hat. She runs alongside the bus trying to signal him so she can ask where he got it. He is entranced by this cute girl sorta flirting with him. He runs a light and hits a pedestrian. The first hint that this accident is going to be effective--this whole sequence is far and away the best part of the film--comes when we see a woman's leg sticking out from under the wheel. So you think "Oh okay, the woman is under the bus." Then the camera pans down and you see--the rest of the woman! So you know she's in bad shape. She is played by Alison Janney, who virtually qualifies for an Oscar in her five minutes in the film. Lisa holds her, and she asks her to call her daughter, Lisa. Lisa says "No, I'm Lisa," and wonders if the woman is hallucinating that she's her daughter. Another excellent way the film implies how very bad the accident is without showing extreme gore is to have them slightly move Allison, and sudden spurts of blood shoot against a man's shirt. The woman, who we later find is named Monica, dies in Lisa's arms.
The police come, and interrogate Lisa and the bus driver separately. They keep exchanging glances at each other, and for whatever reason (we are suggested to believe that Lisa is being sympathetic to the driver), Lisa says she thinks the light was green, i.e. he didn't run a red light. She goes home, washes up, and meets her friends for a movie that night. The film doesn't make her out as callous for doing this, it's more of a "life goes on" thing, a "what is she supposed to do?" thing.
Lisa's life does go on. Her mother, Joan, is in a play, and meets an admirer in Jean Reno as Ramon. They start dating. Lisa calls her dad in California [That's Lonergan, by the way], who is distracted and remote, concerned if Lisa is dating anyone. She grows ever more sullen and indifferent to her mother, and throws a fit when her mother asks if she's coming to her play. "What does it matter? People are dying! Our problems are so trivial!" Lisa feels bad about the accident, and tries to find Monica's daughter, only to learn that she died at twelve. She comes upon a distant relative in California, who is not interested and barely knew Monica. She winds up at a service of Monica's friends, where she meets her best friend, Emily. She asks a male friend to come by and take her virginity, which he does. He is never seen again in the film.
Lisa has a dream that her faucet is gushing blood, and that Monica is there. She goes to Staten Island to visit the bus driver, saying they both know he ran the light, which he is not receptive to hearing. He's been judged blameless, and he wants to keep it that way. Lisa goes to the police and wants to change her story, saying now that the driver ran a red light, but the case is closed and they're not interested. She tells Emily that he ran the light, and they together seek a lawyer to see if they can bring this guy to justice. Throughout Lisa seems confused and well-meaning, haunted by Monica's death and wanting to do something about it, even if it means getting this driver fired and mucking in other people's lives. She is narcissistic, but you don't blame her because she's just in turmoil and young, wanting to take some action and reach some resolution where there may not be any to reach.
Other stuff is filling out the story. Matthew Broderick is here as a teacher who discusses the Matthew Arnold poem that gives the movie its title. Matt Damon is lingering around as a teacher Lisa wants to confide in, but ends up saying nothing when they're together. Joan and Ramon are continuing to date, and he takes her to the opera. Joan is concerned that Lisa is growing more sullen and distant, but Lisa explodes every time she tries to talk. Lisa and Emily are growing closer, and Emily is emerging as a very abrasive, touchy person, in a way that seems very true to life.
In the second hour, you start noticing ever more, ever longer shots of Manhattan. They're all very good, but they start to go on so long one is realizing that they're here because the movie is losing focus, fast. You start to realize that whole threads and characters are going nowhere. Scenes just sort of end without coming to completion. Then, in the last half hour, the movie completely flies apart.
They've called a private investigator, and uncover that the driver has had previous accidents, and pursue the case. Lisa tells Emily that she thinks Monica hallucinated that Lisa was her daughter in her last moments, causing Emily to blow up, saying "We're not all supporting characters in your play." Lisa goes over to Damon's house and, it is implied, blows him, or more. Ramon makes a racist comment and Emily throws a drink at him in a restaurant. The next day, Joan breaks up with him over it. The next day, he dies of a heart attack. The case is settled, and they've won a $350,000 settlement, all of which will go to the relative in California who had no relationship to Monica, and the driver will not be fired. Lisa freaks, saying getting him fired (which, in her mind, is justice) was the whole point, and saying that she's responsible for Monica's death, which Emily does not react to and which is not developed. Lisa finds Damon and one of his friends and blurts, on the street, that she had an abortion last week. You, as a viewer, don't know if it's true, if she's trying to blackmail Damon, or what. The whole thing is dropped. Lisa goes with her mother to the opera, where she abruptly breaks down and starts crying, they hold each other, and the film ends.
< < < SPOILERS END
So what you're left with are the sketches of what looks like could have been a great film. You have a number of very interesting, realistic characters, with all sorts of fascinating shades of ambiguity, but without a complete structure to take their stories anywhere. You have Paquin giving the performance of her career, tragically lost in this unstructured mess. And you have a great ensemble delivering great work in a number of well-written, realistic New York characters, which sadly don't amount to much of anything.
What is there is a portrait of this confused young woman who is as narcissistic as any smart girl her age, suddenly forced to confront a situation that exposes life's meaninglessness, and how she struggles to make sense of it as best she can. In some ways it seems all about her, and in other ways it makes her quite aware that she doesn't matter at all. She can act in fairly outrageous ways, wanting to get the driver fired, imagining that she played a great role in Monica's last moments, but she remains sympathetic because she is only trying to do what she thinks is the right thing, unable to really face that there may not only be no right thing to do, but nothing to do at all.
So it's a brilliant setup, and a brilliant character, with an excellent way to demonstrate the many ambiguous aspects of the situation. But ultimately, it's just a sketch. If I were editing, I might try to cut the film's losses and edit it to be shorter and more punchy, but it was edited by Scorsese, who seems to be constitutionally unable to deliver any film under two and a half hours. Thus we have elements that could have been--arguably should have been--taken out, as they go nowhere or bring up too much, such as the late-film abortion announcement. Did it happen? Has she just gone fully crazy? Is she growing even more over the top in her efforts to manipulate? We'll never really know, and rather than helping us settle in and make what we can of an unfinished film, it starts exploding possibilities at the last moment.
Regardless, interesting, bordering on brilliant, even, just sadly unfinished. What's there may be enough for some, but mostly what emerges is just a sketch. And poor Paquin and all her amazing work...
Up to you. It is frustrating, but what is there is good and can stay with you.