The fact that director Paul Thomas Anderson once stated that “I really feel that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make” speaks a thousand words. This is the man who made the impossibly entertaining Boogie Nights, a film which launched both his career as well as the careers of almost everyone acting within it. This is the fellow who saw every Hugh Grant film ever made and thought ‘fuck it, i’ll take the most annoying actor in the world and still make something one thousand times more intriguing’ and went ahead and created the Adam Sandler-starring Punch Drunk Love.
To put it simply, Magnolia is his magnum opus. Through dealing with several intertwining storylines surrounding failed parent-child relations over a three-hour long running time, the film manages to be painfully slow, overtly melodramatic, and often overblown; but, somehow, it also manages to be completely perfect.
One only has to look at Crash, another one of those ‘loads of stories in one big story’ films, to see how strong Magnolia is. While Crash ultimately crumbles in its conclusion at the hands of the stereotyped, undeveloped characters that hold it up, Magnolia instead feels completely resolved, and really leaves one with a heavy sense of satisfaction after the long (I can’t emphasise the word enough) journey they just undertook. And Crash was the one that won Oscars! This is exactly what Lemar was singing about…
Often, films with ensemble casts can get lazy as they realise that the amount of stars present mean that the film will sell regardless of its quality (see Valentine’s Day), but in Magnolia, Anderson manages to provide an almost endless queue of big-name actors with meaty characters that allow them to show off their talents.
Tom Cruise is perhaps the most memorable in the role of Frank T.J Mackey, a misogynistic egotist with a mad look behind his well-practiced smile. His performance works on two levels; on the one hand it cleverly reflects the public’s assumption that he is an utterly delusional mentalist, giving the role a heavy sense of meta-cynical satire, but on the other, it allows him to justify his position as the highest paid name in the business through his superb acting. Justify to a point anyway…
Another actor who uses Magnolia as a forum in challenging the public’s expectation of them is John. C. Reilly, who strays from his type-cast man-child role to convincingly put forward an emotional turn as a lonely police officer who falls in love with a coke addict. Surprisingly, it is in fact Reilly who delivers some of the films most affecting speeches, showing he is still great even when he is a world away from the likes of Step Brothers.
Child actor Jeremy Blackman also impresses greatly, giving Sixth-Sense-era Hayley Joel Osment a run for his money in his role as Stanley Spector, the child-genius who bursts (literally) under the pressure applied to him by his bastard father.
To the cynic, Magnolia could be seen as one long montage of famous people crying, and it cannot be denied that the film’s acting is indeed melodramatic, but I feel that its overal effectiveness only serves to show that, in the right context, melodrama is just a word that can be entirely justified. Everyone present deserves an independent mention that extends far beyond this article.
Magnolia’s strongest aspect could perhaps be its script, penned by Anderson himself. In a film that contains several different narratives, one might expect a lot of its script to be left to plot, sacrificing emotion, but Anderson manages to strike the balance effortlessly.
Whether it’s the brutally blunt introduction narrated by the magician Ricky Jay, Tom Cruise’s abhorrent ‘Respect the cock! Tame the C**t!’ speech, or Jason Robards genuinely moving ode to regret on his deathbed, Anderson documents the extremes of human behaviour to such a terrifying degree of accuracy, that he joins Derren Brown and Dynamo on my list of people I would be too suspicious of to be friends with in real life. Even Claudia, a cocaine hovering prostitute, is provided with rhetorical, alluring maxims (“Would you object to never seeing each other again?”).
“Sometimes its dangerous to confuse children and angels” shouts William H. Macy in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, quoting the early 19th century British conservative David Maxwell Fyfe. It is this kind of seemingly obscure inspiration throughout the script that provide the evidence, if evidence were needed, for how much love and labour Anderson put into making this film. Magnolia’s script has that very rare ability of managing to belong to both characters and its writer.
Another technically impressive element is the film’s camera work. The use of long, long single takes seems to be somewhat of a trademark Anderson feature, as it is visible in almost all of his films, and the scene’s in which it is present in Magnolia are rendered infinitely more powerful. Take the scene where we are first introduced to the TV studios for example; it seems to last forever, but it’s ever increasing duration only serves to increase it’s constructive brilliance and gracefulness at exactly the same rate.
The breadth of this film, containing as it does a slightly overwhelming level of characterisation and plotting, is difficult to summarise in just one short article. Just watch it and let yourself get absorbed for several hours by some of the best acting, cinematography and writing from cinema’s recent history. Trust me.
Magnolia (1999), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is released on Blu-ray disc and DVD by Entertainment In Video, Certificate 18.