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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Magnolia

Starring: Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore
Director: Paul Anderson
Rated: R
RunTime: 178 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Ezra Buzzington, William R. Mapother, Jim Beaver, Michael Bowen, Melinda Dillon, Jeremy Blackman, Henry Gibson, William H. Macy

Review by MrBrown
4 stars out of 4

A faceless narrator ruminates on the nature of chance and fate by telling of three different inexplicable occurrences through time. The most interesting anecdote is one where a young man's attempt at a suicidal fall is botched mid-plunge--when he ends up the victim of a murder to which he was an accessory. The convoluted mechanics of this strange--make that _freak_--occurrence are analyzed in exhaustive detail, complete with a visual breakdown by telestrator. It's not exactly the most obvious way to open any film about the anguished lives of a cross-section of people in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, but in terms of Paul Thomas Anderson's _Magnolia_, it is the perfect curtain- and eyebrow-raiser for three hours of the director's astonishingly powerful and audacious vision.

Anderson follows that bold prologue with an introductory sequence that can only be described as being cinematically alive. As a TV blares the ridiculously macho propaganda of male self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), one by one we're introduced to the characters, storylines, and relationships that intertwine over one eventful 24-hour period detailed in the film. Cancer-stricken television producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is on his deathbed, being tended to by his nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as his much younger trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) searches in vain for a way to cope. Elsewhere in the Valley is another terminal cancer victim, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who hasn't yet let his estranged, drug-addicted daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) know about his condition. In the meantime, he continues his long-running hosting duties on the popular kids-versus-adults quiz show _What_Do_Kids_Know?_, whose current champion is child genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Serving as a counterpoint to Stanley's progression is the downward slide of Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former champion of the same show back in the '60s. Patrolling the Valley streets while talking to an invisible partner is Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly).

This highly kinetic sequence, fueled by energized editing and camera work, is ultimately held together by the song that plays in the background, a tune that succinctly sums up the main feeling of the characters and the film itself: Aimee Mann's cover of "One"--as in, "one is the loneliest number." Isolation is the primary theme of _Magnolia_, and the overwhelming pain that comes with the state its primary mood; as the characters each seek out connection and comfort, Anderson masterfully uses music to express that which is neither seen nor spoken. For a non-musical film, _Magnolia_ is highly dependent on the music; there is nary a moment where either a song (usually by Mann, contributed seven to the film) or Jon Brion's instrumental score is playing in the background. Sometimes Anderson even has score and songs playing concurrently, and a number of times the music takes the foreground and the dialogue recedes into the background (most notably in the film's final scenes); both are bold moves, and they prove to be highly effective in showing the urgency of emotion that burns beneath the surface.

But no example of Anderson's use of music is as ingenius as in one bound-to-be-discussed scene that occurs about two-thirds into the film. As all the characters appear to be at their lowest, most uncertain point, the action completely stops and each person, regardless of where they are, sings along to Mann's somber "Wise Up." The tune is not playing on anyone's stereo as source music; it simply plays on the film's soundtrack, and everyone relates their pain through the song, whose chorus goes, "It's not going to stop 'til you wise up." The idea sounds ridiculous and almost overly cutesy on paper, but the scene sends chills while watching it unfold onscreen. When the signature line is sung for the final time, with the altered lyric "It's not going to stop, so just _give_up_"--it packs a stunning wallop.

Of course, such an experimental, for lack of a better term, "stunt" would not work if the audience does not care for any of the characters. While _Magnolia_ runs three hours, Anderson still has only so much screen time to divide between its large canvas of players, and it's a testimony to his writing and directing skill and the ability of the actors that everyone comes across as a fully-realized human being. The cast is absolutely flawless, with Cruise undoubtedly set to get the lion's share of attention for his showy, likely-to-be-Oscar-nominated work. The recognition would be well-deserved, but I found myself even more impressed with others in the ensemble. Moore is particularly strong, gradually revealing the tenderness that lies beneath her character's shrewish bitterness; the moment where Linda is finally able to be honest about her feelings to another and to herself is shattering. Walters and Reilly are called on to navigate the film's central romantic thread, and their oddball characters' pairing is at once comically eccentric and genuinely endearing. Then there's the bound-to-be-unsung hero by the name of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The role of loyal and nice nurse Phil is far from the film's flashiest (not surprisingly, that distinction goes to Cruise's), but it's one of those critical parts that, if done completely wrong, could short-circuit the entire film. That Hoffman's work is likely to go unrecognized says everything about the quality of his performance.

The idea of the inexplicable--and Anderson's courageously go-for-broke creative approach--comes to a head during the film's climax, when something indeed beyond reason takes place, serving as a unifying force between all the characters and plotlines. I will not give it away, but the development not quite as out-of-left-field as some people suggest; it is, in fact, very subtly foreshadowed throughout the course of the movie. Nonetheless, it _is_ quite a jarring turn, but by that point I was willing to go anywhere the boundlessly imaginative Anderson was leading. That's the sign of a true film artist at work, and the proof is the moving, magnificent masterwork that is _Magnolia_.

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