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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul," said the poet William Ernest Henley back in 1888, to which some of us, having witnessed some mighty irrational occurrences during this century, would cynically reply, "Ha!" Are we indeed creatures whose use of free will can make or break us? Of are we mere bondsmen to our real overlords and rulers, the vagaries of life--namely chance, accidents, coincidences, and our own past?

In Paul Thomas Anderson's vision, we are like puppets on strings, manipulated by Divine Will, flukes, happenstance, societal norms, and driven at times to near-insanity by the afflictions of our own past. Anderson's previous film, "Boogie Nights," re-created an extended family of pornographers in California's San Fernando Valley from the late seventies to the early eighties, centering on an alienated teen (Mark Wahlberg) who is made into a porn star. Like "Magnolia," that creation of the twenty-eight-year-old director features flamboyant cinematography, a garish production design, and some gritty shots of the California landscape that could give a foreigner watching the film the impression that with few exceptions, the whole state houses no less than an anguished collection of guilt-ridden, media-obsessed, coke-snorting, manipulating, erratic, unloved and unloving freaks. What a panorama of personalities to exploit for the making of a bold, imaginative, envelope-pushing movie! Fellini would shape his material to suit his neeeds: Anderson does so his way.

Anderson deliberately and happily does not try to shape his epic-length story into a timeless classic that could be suitably viewed and enjoyed by people a century from now. Though we do see the family dysfunction that had fired the fancy of the Greeks and Elizabethans, "Magnolia" spotlights a particular place with a unique lifestyle--California's San Fernando Valley--just as Anderson had centered on the characteristic environment of L.A. in "Boogie Nights" and on Nevada in "Hard Eight." While the pornographers of "Boogie Nights" plied their trade with little embarrassment, however, many of the folks in "Magnolia" are overwhelmed with feelings of guilt for their transgressions, spiritually dried up and dying for their inability to give or receive love. But like Dirk, the stud at the core of the 1997 film, the characters in the current work try to compensate for the put- downs and abuse suffered at the hands of their parents in odd, but often futile, ways.

If the porno scene of "Boogie Nights" was a reflection of the greedy 1980s, the rootless nineties forms the backdrop of "Magnolia." More people in America are living alone than ever before, many subsisting on the meager rewards of watching TV, attending support groups (like the guys in David Fincher's "Fight Club"), engaging in meaningless, recreational sex, and filling their bodies with harmful substances--the drugs which, we are told, are being consumed in place of the hugs we should be receiving. Anderson frames the story with some faux-historical clips to demonstrate the workings of chance and coincidence on our lives, the first frames actually taken with a century-old Pathe camera to evoke a feeling of authenticity. From there, cinematographer Robert Elswit joins with editor Dylan Tichenor to create Altmanesque short cuts which capture the goings-on of a small group of Californians, occurrences which at first seem absolutely unrelated but which, in fact, are interwoven. All events in the movie take place during a single, striking 24-hour period, all bolstering the cogent expression, "What a difference a day makes."

Each of the principals in this character-driven tale possesses a solid, distinct personality. The most flamboyant is Frank Mackey, who is played by Tom Cruise in a role unlike any other he has rendered. On the surface, Mackey is an arrogant, successful leader of a male support group who prances confidently before expensive seminars teaching his devotees how to seduce women--how to be the in-charge guy who is irresistible to the opposite sex. One of the chapters in his study manuals is: "How to fake that you are a caring person." He is estranged from his 65-year-old dad, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), the producer of a quiz show who is quickly and painfully dying of cancer and wants only to see his son before he goes. Partridge's much younger wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), has been driven into a frenzy by guilt over her relationship with her husband, while most of the principals are either similarly awash with overwhelming regrets for their past deeds or unhappy products of ill treatment they received from people they had trusted.

"Magnolia," which gets its title from Mark Bridges and Williams Arnold's production design--the greens, browns and off-whites of the flower, the colors deepening as the characters grow to understand their motivations--will probably not enjoy the popular appeal of the more vigorous "Boogie Nights." Anderson's loosely constructed script requires more patience from the audience, which may be too eager to discover the connections among these diverse personalities and are left hanging for quite a while before locating the director's aims and understanding his vision. Nor does "Magnolia" enjoy the level of humor that Anderson rouses in his previous script. While Alfred Molina is his usual exuberant self this time around, we miss the side-splitting shtick of two years ago when he portrayed an easy-going fellow who just wants to party throughout the day.

Rarely before has a film utilized its soundtrack in the pulsating style of "Magnolia." Aimee Mann's songs are every bit a character, their palpitating tones punctuating all aspects of the story--particularly the final strain in which everyone joins, dead and living alike. Mark Bridges's costumes symbolize the camouflage behind which we all hide our truer, darker personalities, most pointedly the expensive outfits worn by Linda Partridge to hide her inner impoverishment. Some particularly arresting roles are played by young Jeremy Blackman as Stanley, the love-starved boy genius who sings part of a "Carmen" aria to win points on a quiz show m.c.'d by first-class phony Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), and by William H. Macy as a former boy genius so messed up by his parents that he winds up a near basket case thinking that orthodontia could bring him love.

Though there is cause for optimism as "Magnolia"'s personalities come to grips with their psyches, making amends sometimes successfully, sometimes fruitlessly, and in one case disastrously, Anderson's concept is a bleak one. If his country continues on its current, rootless path, ignoring the obligations and joys of family connection and healthy relationships with friends and associates, California and the other alienated centers of America are in for a cataclysmic disaster. We could perhaps suffer even the Divine punishment which Anderson so boldly and surrealistically splashes across the screen toward the movie's conclusion, a punishment that recalls God's harsh treatment of the Egyptian pharaoh who would not let his enslaved people go.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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