Magnolia (1999) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore
I have a love/hate relationship with “Magnolia.” For years, it was a near god-like worship for the film. Seeing in it 1999, was an inspirational experience. Even on subsequent viewings my reverence for the film grew and grew. But lately I’ve tended to hate the film. Let’s try and comprehend why.
At 3 hours plus, it’s a dizzying tale of nine of more interconnected characters all going through life-changing moments during one 24-hour period. The title derives from an intersection in the heart of the San Fernando Valley of California (Anderson’s home turf). There’s Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a cop courting a young and disturbed coked-out girl, Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) – who is the daughter of a philandering alcoholic game show host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) who hosts a children’s game show whose main star is a child-genius, Stanley Spector – who doesn’t want to grow up to be like former child-star and kid genius, quiz-kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy). The heart of the story is the relationship between Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) an alpha male motivational speaker and his estranged father Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) who’s on his deathbed dying of cancer.
The combination of all these characters (and a few more) make up the mosaic of sorrow, loss, guilt and redemption that Anderson is trying to paint. And he certainly succeeds in spades. “Magnolia” wears its heart on its sleeve in terms of emotional catharsis. Characters’ motivations and inner secrets are slowly revealed throughout the film which creates the extreme peaks and valleys of the narrative. For example, in the middle section of the film, TJ Mackey, who is introduced as a despicable misogynist, is brilliantly broken down by a probing journalist (the amazing April Grace) in an interview between his speaking sessions. The revelation of Mackey’s past in this instance turns around the audience’s perspective of its characters.
Anderson’s stylistic excess equals the excesses in emotion. Anderson’s channeling Scorsese again, as he whips his camera around from character to character, subplot to subplot, rarely giving us time to breath. The second half of the film gives us quieter and more reflective moments – most famously during the scene in which each of our main characters express their remorse by simultaneously singing the Aimee Mann ballad, “Wise Up.”
The songs of Aimee Mann are the backbone of the film, which was one of the Anderson’s inspirations for writing the story. But it’s the pulsating rhythm of Jon Brion’s score which dictates the pace.
Despite these qualities, the film also feels bloated, self-serving and arrogant. The film walks a fine line between a brilliant operatic masterpiece and egotistical pretentious piece of shit. It’s so big and so grand, literally and metaphorically, like a painter given a canvas just a bit too large to see it all in one glance. Portions of the piece sizzle with artistic brilliance, other parts sag, and as a whole you’re not quite sure what it all means. And I’m not sure if Anderson knows exactly what “Magnolia” is either. Depending on my mood, I lean either way. But don’t forget when “Citizen Kane” was released the reaction was the same – many loved it and many hated it. But it is a masterpiece for exactly this reason. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Magnolia
Here’s the interview scene I mentioned: