"Magnolia" is a mind-blowing masterpiece of a movie--heavy in drama, intense
emotional material, characters, and underlying themes. At 195 minutes (that
would be 3 hours 15 minutes), the film is a sprawling artistic triumph,
displaying an amount of downright shocking originality and vigor that very
few films ever hope to obtain. What I can't, nor never could attempt to
explain, is how such an overwhelmingly ambitious, effortlessly fabricated
motion picture could be made by a director who is 29-years-old and is only on
his third film (the other two being the 1997 double-header, "Hard Eight" and
"Boogie Nights," both of which are among the best films of that respective
year). I'll never know his secret, but Anderson can now surely and without a
doubt be named the most exciting and fresh filmmaker working today, a genius
for the ages.
Only artificially resembling a Robert Altman ensemble picture (1975's
"Nashville," 1993's "Short Cuts"), but acquiring a storytelling approach and
technical style all its own, "Magnolia" is unlike anything I've seen before,
and when you can assuredly say that, you really know the film at hand is,
undoubtedly, a unique one.
After an attention-getting prologue, in which three stories are briefly told
that concern chance and coincidence, like rapid-fire we immediately are
thrown into a whirlwind of characters whom we will then follow over a 24-hour
period in the San Fernando Valley. Most are related to each other in some
way, which we discover as the film progresses. Kicking things off is Jim
Kurring (John C. Reilly), a truthful, religious police officer who is very
lonely and looking for love. After traveling to an apartment building whose
one resident has complained about the overly loud music and yelling coming
from next door, Jim is immediately struck by the beautiful, but obviously
somehow distraught young woman, Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters). Both
are attracted to each other right away, but little does he know that Claudia
is a cocaine addict, and the ruckus came from her yelling at her estranged
father, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who had dropped by earlier to tell
her he just found out he has cancer and only has a few months to live. Jimmy
Gator is a television host for the popular game show, "What Do Kids Know?,"
and as this particular episode proceeds during the evening, Jimmy is startled
to discover that he is deteriorating faster than he thought, much to the
distress of his wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon).
One of the reigning whiz kid contestants is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman)
who, as the night progresses, realizes that everyone, including his gruff
father (Michael Bowen), is treating him like an object, or an encyclopedia,
when all he wants is to be looked at as an average kid. Back in the 1960s,
the most publicized whiz kid for the show was Donnie Smith (William H. Macy),
who still lives in the same city, but has just learned that he is about to be
fired from his job at a furniture store. Excited about getting corrective
teeth surgery, it is soon discovered that Donnie simply longs to be like the
one he is in love with, a handsome, buff bartender (Brad Hunt) who has braces
As the game show wears on during the early hours of the night, being filmed
on another cable station across town is sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom
Cruise), a male chauvinist pig whose motto is "Seduce and Destroy." During an
interview with a female reporter (April Grace) between the break of the show,
Frank falsely states that his father is dead and has a positive relationship
with his mother. In actuality, as a child, he was left to care for his ill
mother while his father, the wealthy Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), left
them and ended up marrying the much younger Linda (Julianne Moore). Now Earl
is in the last stages of cancer, and as Linda grows more and more conflicted
and guilty about getting the money in his will (she doesn't want it because
she originally married him for his riches, but now has truly grown to love
him), Earl's nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has been trying to
reach Frank through the impossible hotline of his show, so that they might
possibly be able to reconcile before his death.
Sort of like 1999's exciting German film, "Run Lola Run," "Magnolia" seems to
always be on the move from one destination to the next, with the difference
being that the latter picture actually has a noticeable amount of substance
to match its liberatingly flashy style. For much of the film, the camera
rarely stops moving, but it is not done in a way that becomes annoying or
hints of hurried editing. Instead, like Anderson's previous "Boogie Nights,"
"Magnolia" is a motion picture alive and well, with energy to spare, and a
clear and bold signification of the pure love for the art of moviemaking.
Intriguing is the way that certain things might happen, and then the next
scene will go back in time to when the previous scene was occurring, and
simply follow a different character. This can be detected most easily when
the day slowly edges towards night, and in one scene it will be dark, while
in the next the evening will only be approaching. Not only is P.T. Anderson
(as he likes to be called) a marvelous director, but his writing matches it
in every way. The screenplay, which is known to have been sparked not only
from a collection of ideas that Anderson then interweaved together, but also
in the 9 songs that singer Aimee Mann has contributed to the picture, is one
that very well could have been uneven, since a couple stories are usually
bound to be more interesting than others, but this does not happen this time.
Every character and each one of their lives is sympathetically brought to
vibrant life, and because of its highly appropriate three-hour-plus length,
enough time is spent with each central individual to get to know, understand,
and care about them.
Aimee Mann's songs have been previously remarked as being one of the film's
very own characters, and I couldn't agree more. They are beautiful pieces of
musical art on their own, and each one has its rightful purpose in the
picture, especially in the extremely fitting places that Anderson has placed
them. A tour de force sequence that is certainly one of the most brilliantly
heartbreaking moments in any film from 1999, Aimee Mann's quiet "Wise Up,"
filled with equal measures of hope and utter despair, begins to play on the
soundtrack, and each character, no matter where they are, sings a couple
verses of the song. The outcome is extraordinarily powerful and an
approximately five-minute stretch of film that will never be forgotten.
Anderson has a way with casting the best actors in the biz, and then pulling
superior work out of them, and "Magnolia" is no exception. Across the board,
the performances are astounding, and they all work so perfectly together, in
the context of the film, that no one could be pin-pointed as being better
than the next. Worth noting, though, is John C. Reilly's earnest Jim Kurring;
Jeremy Blackman's impressive turn as young Stanley Spector; Philip Baker
Hall, as Jimmy Gator, the game show host at battle with himself, and with his
recently discovered cancer; Julianne Moore's poignant and misunderstood Linda
Partridge; Jason Robard's fully accurate portrayal of the cancer-stricken
Earl Partridge; Melora Walter's internally struggling, drug-addicted Claudia
Gator; and Philip Seymour Hoffman's sincere, caring Phil Parma. Tom Cruise,
although no better than anyone else, should be individually mentioned for
taking on such a brave, admirable supporting role, as Frank T.J. Mackey.
Never has Cruise had such a wildly diverse character as the one he has been
gifted with here, and his only misstep at all comes in his final tearful
scene, which is slightly overplayed. It's also a welcome change of pace to
see the return of the underrated Melinda Dillon, who has virtually
disappeared from the movie radar in recent years, but is touching and
effective as Rose, Jimmy Gator's suspicious, grief-stricken wife.
Everyone in "Magnolia" is inevitably leading up to a certain moment in time,
one which has less to do with what is going to happen to them, since their
lives are already reaching a crossroad that many will fail at and not be able
to cross, and more to do with the way chance and coincidence can change a
person's whole life forever. Although I have been outraged to discover that
the surprising ending has been discussed in detail in certain reviews, there
is no way I would dare give it away for those who haven't been fortunate
enough to see this luminous motion picture. Suffice to say, what does happen
may appear to come right out of left field, but there are clues throughout
the film, and I think what it symbolizes is the way that the characters'
decisions and choices that they have made in their lifetimes are crushing
down and squeezing the life out of them, to the point where there is nowhere
left for them to go. While what happens destroys some people's lives even
further, it also ultimately brings other characters together, and the final
scene is one filled with a grand, incomparable sense of hope and happiness.
"Magnolia" is surely a one-of-a-kind experience. It's difficult to fathom
that Anderson could ever make another film as great as this one, but who
knows? After seeing the enormous amount of talent he has, there's no doubt in
my mind that he will continue to surprise, delight, and challenge his
audiences well into the 21st Century.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman