|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 29 August 2000|
The swirling stories of the awesomely ambitious "Magnolia" again invited comparisons to the movies of Robert Altman, unlike Altman, Anderson views all his characters as fellow voyagers in life, all looking for love and/or acceptance, few finding it.
All three of Anderson's movies so far (the other is "Hard Eight") deal with the relationships between fathers -- or father figures -- and their children. To this recurring theme of Anderson's, "Magnolia" adds the frequently-stated idea that while we may be through with the past, it's not through with us: we are the sum of our pasts, and it's better if we face that and get on with life. (Anderson, incidentally, insists that "Magnolia" does not have several storylines, but rather is one big story with many characters.)
Anderson deals with his characters with great clarity, authority and honesty. And he keeps surprising us all the way through the long (three hours plus) movie, sometimes with astonishing camera techniques, sometimes with story twists, and finally with one of the most flabbergasting, outrageous, incredible -- and gruesomely delightful -- sequences in recent movie history. It simply wouldn't be fair to tell you what it is, but maybe you can get a hint from the fact that one of the people thanked in the end credits is Charles Fort.The movie opens with a few demonstrations of coincidences from the past, all of which seem to have been invented by Anderson. The unidentified narrator scoffs at the idea of coincidence, and we move into the interlinked stories, a "mosaic," as the presskit says.
Male nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is at the bedside of the dying Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a wealthy man who made his money by producing TV shows. Earl's much younger wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) is near hysteria: she married Earl for his money, but now has come to love him very deeply -- but it's almost literally too late. When the quarrelsome but good-hearted Earl says he wants to see his long-estranged son, the sympathetic Phil tries to chase him down.
Earl's son is TV guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) who runs a very specific sort of self-help service called Seduce & Destroy. Going beyond those groups that try to restore a sense of maleness to men who're emotionally and socially adrift, Frank espouses a theory of male domination.
Accompanied by his father Rick (Michael Bowen), young Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), child genius, uneasily shows up to tape another segment of "What Do Kids Know?", a quiz show that pits a trio of bright youngsters against adults. The long-time host of the show is Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), revered the country over for his genial ways, but a quick montage shows us that he's been living Frank's seduce & destroy theory for years, despite his warm and loving wife Rose (Melinda Dillon). Before the telecast, Jimmy tries to make amends with his estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) but even though he reveals that he is dying of cancer, she furiously sends him away, and goes right back to her heavy cocaine habit.
Earnest but not very effective LAPD officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), usually sent out on minor noisy-neighbor complaints, is confronted with a murder. A neighborhood kid, Dixon (Emmanuel Johnson), tries to tell Jim who the killer was, but since he offers the information only in the form of a rap song, Jim doesn't understand Later, Jim arrives at Claudia's apartment on a similar noise complaint, but finds himself attracted to the jittery young woman.
Quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who once scored big on "What Do Kids Want?", now lives on his old reputation, such as it is. About to lose his job, Donnie is very upset, because he's just arranged to have expensive braces mounted on his teeth.
The soundtrack of "Magnolia" features many songs by Aimee Mann, some of which are more tightly linked to the film's stories than others. Toward the end, Anderson does something remarkable with one of the songs; he cuts from storyline to storyline, and in each, the lead character sings along with Mann's song on the soundtrack.
Other experiments are less successful; occasionally the dialog track is turned down and the song track is turned up. We're supposed to pay attention to the song, not the dialog, but this amounts to an attempt to re-educate the audience on just what movies are. Instead of listening to the song lyrics, we struggle to hear the softer dialog; we end up hearing neither.
There are many approaches to making movies, but in America, it's generally been that we are watching a story with accompanying music. But like Martin Scorsese, Anderson seems to be heading in a somewhat different direction regarding movie grammar: just as ballet is not dancing to music, but a single art form that consists of music and dance, Anderson is trying to unify all elements of moviemaking into one. We're not watching a story about people with the camera showing us what they are doing; what the camera is doing is a part of the story, and so is the music. Instead of separate elements each working on the audience, Anderson's approach is to turn filmmaking into one, unified artform. He doesn't quite get there with "Magnolia," but it's breathtaking to see him try.
Over the course of the movie, the character threads tighten and loosen, some linking up in new ways, and by the end, Anderson offers hope that these inchoate lives can finally find some kind of anchor. If people can just become aware that the past is always with us, that strange things happen all the time, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, we can all finally find the love we're seeking. We not only have to forgive others, we have to forgive ourselves -- but sometimes, though rarely, that's not enough.
The cast is excellent, with perhaps Cruise and Moore being the standouts. It is, however, an ensemble piece if there ever was one, and all the characters catch and hold our attention.
Although it's entirely possible that "Magnolia" will end up being known primarily for the mind-boggling form taken by this movie's particular deus ex machina, the movie overall doesn't depend on that comic/gruesome climax. It was one of the most daring, challenging and successful movies of 1999, one of the few that really does seem like a capper for the millennium.
Surprisingly, the DVD -- otherwise well-packaged -- doesn't include a commentary track by Paul Thomas Anderson, or anyone else. The movie is contained on one of the two discs, while the other features the amazingly varied trailers, Mackey's infomercial and part of his seminar, and an engrossing, funny, revealing behind-the-scenes documentary called "That Moment," shot on video by Mark Rance. It gives a better sense of what it's like to work on a movie than anything else I have ever seen. Anderson comes away as a funny, focused but relaxed guy, one you'd like to know. A scene near the end of him giggling at a bank of video monitors during the press junket is priceless.
This is a very special movie; it doesn't achieve all its ambitions, but it's imaginative, intelligent and compassionate. After the three movies, one can only eagerly look forward to whatever Anderson tries next.
If you liked this movie, you might also enjoy; Nashville and Boogie Nights.