Some films review themselves just by their titles – Big Nothing and The Expendables being recent, superfluous examples. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, however, is an exception to the rule. Neither bland nor unoriginal like its colour namesake, the film is one of the most daring and innovative pieces of cinema for decades. And here’s why.
So-called due to its happenings on Magnolia Boulevard in Los Angeles, Anderson’s third feature is a sprawling, operatic labyrinth of interlocking stories of those lost and lonely in the San Fernando Valley. Anderson assembled a stellar cast, many of whom he’d worked with before on Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. John C. Reilly plays Jim, a lonesome by-the-book cop, prone to philosophical musings to his shotgun, who eventually finds love in the shape of – unbeknownst to him – drug-addicted Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia’s father is Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a daytime quiz show host of ‘What do Kids Know’ of which Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) was a past champion. Robbed of his winnings by his parents, Donnie now seeks corrective teeth surgery to impress a local barman. Meanwhile Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) is caring for dying husband and T.V. producer, Earl (Jason Robards). Both are plagued with guilt. Linda is ashamed of the affairs she’s had behind her husband’s back after having married him for his money, but now realises that she does indeed love and care for him. Earl regrets abandoning his estranged son who he left to care for his terminally ill mother. On his deathbed, Earl pleads with nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to be reunited with his son to seek some sort of redemption before he dies. Finally there’s Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, a male motivational speaker whose seminar program ‘Seduce and Destroy’ is designed as a quick and easy way to bed the woman of your dreams.
But, before any of these chess pieces are put into play, Anderson orchestrates an opening ten-minute meditation on coincidence and chance, important themes that
run throughout the film. Featuring tales about an unfortunate scuba diver who ends up dead at the top of a tree and the suicide of a young man that, once he jumps off the top of his building, turns into a homicide, this prelude may just be the greatest opening to any movie. As the segment ends and the opening credits appear onscreen, the narrator utters a mantra to be carried through the film, “These strange things happen all the time.”
And so it begins, told through Anderson’s auteurist long, fluid camera movements that create the illusion of each character’s segment being one and the same as another’s. Anderson manages to create unity out of disparity. This effect is highlighted by a wonderfully surreal moment where the cast is brought together to sing Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’, a beautiful and melancholic track much like Mann’s other songs that fill the film’s soundtrack (she would earn an Oscar nomination for the original song, ‘Save Me’).
As for the performances, no one puts a foot wrong.
Standouts include Hoffman, a consistently reliable actor, Robards as the dying T.V. producer, a performance made even more poignant by his death the following year, and Julianne Moore, whose frenzied breakdown in a pharmacy in the film draws both laughter and sympathy. And then there’s Tom Cruise as Frank Mackey. A horribly misogynistic creation, this self-proclaimed “master of the muffin”, is able, through a heart-wrenching resolution, to gain some semblance of salvation. It’s Cruise’s best performance to-date and he deservedly garnered a Supporting Actor Oscar nom.
Magnolia is a sombre ode to its deserted inhabitants and a genuine masterpiece. It’s a tour-de-force of emotional intensity and craftsmanship, featuring pitch-perfect performances, a superb soundtrack and an odd, amphibious, ending. You simply have to see this.
hing and The Expend