Magnolia (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With Magnolia, director Paul Thomas Anderson has segued into the realm of the three hour movie. It's an ambitious step to take - making lengthy, ensemble movies with tangentially related and occasionally interconnected storylines can be a risky endeavor, both creatively and financially. When it works and everything snaps into focus, the rewards can be great, but when it fails, the finished product often looks worse than the mangled wreckage of a head-on car crash. Fortunately, Anderson has a deft hand when it comes to filmmaking, and this project does not tax his talent beyond the breaking point. Magnolia is a fascinating and worthwhile motion picture that manages to keep viewers interested in the plights of ten different characters for nearly its full length - right up to and through the improbable climax.

Anderson is one of only a few recent directors who has shown growth in each of his first three outings. His motion picture debut, Hard Eight, was an intriguing but uneven character study of an older man and his surrogate son. Boogie Nights pulled no punches in chronicling the rise and fall of a top porn star during the late '70s and early '80s. Now, Magnolia presents a slice-of-life look at a group of characters whose fates are intertwined even though their paths don't necessarily intersect during the course of this film. One can argue whether Boogie Nights or Magnolia is the more accomplished feature, but there's no debating that Magnolia represents the greater challenge. It also features one of the most audacious plot developments ever to grace the silver screen. Anderson does something so outrageous during the film's final 30 minutes that jaws will drop throughout the theater.

In order to get a sense of where Magnolia is going, it is necessary to introduce the various characters. At the center of events is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a television producer who, stricken by cancer, lies on his deathbed. His young wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is desolate with grief and guilt, and has trouble coping with her impending loss. His estranged son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), the charismatic guru of the "Seduce and Destroy" lifestyle, has worked hard to sever all connections with Earl. His nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), seeks to fulfill his employer's dying wish and reunite him with Frank. Meanwhile, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who is the host of Earl's most popular TV show, the long-running "What Do Kids Know?", also has terminal cancer. Like Earl and Frank, a rift exists between him and his child. When he attempts a reconciliation with Claudia (Melora Walters), she rebuffs him. Later, she embarks on a strange relationship with a gentle but ineffectual police officer, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). And Jimmy must explain to his wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon), why Claudia hates him so intensely. At the same time, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a child genius on Jimmy's show, finds that the only way to get his father's attention is to win money. And, as Stanley continues to answer questions right, a former quiz show star, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), watches the remains of his life go up in smoke. Together, these characters make up the leaves and branches of this tree.

In essence, Magnolia deals with the effects of physical and spiritual cancer on individuals and families. Earl and Jimmy, who are in many ways mirror images of each other, are afflicted with both forms of the malady. And, while their bodies have previously been untouched, they have been emotionally diseased for years. Like a reverse Midas touch, this malaise has spread to everyone close to them. Claudia is a drug abuser with no self-confidence. Frank hides behinds a misogynist image he has created. Linda is suicidal. Even the ex-quiz kid and current contestant on "What Do Kids Know?" have deep-rooted problems. The only exemptions to this pervasive ailment of the soul are Jim Kurring and Phil Parma, who do not have lasting connections to any of the other characters.

Three hours is a long time to keep an audience involved, and Anderson almost pulls it off. There is a bit of a lag during the early part of the third hour, but a surprising incident of almost Biblical proportions re-invigorates the proceedings. This will undoubtedly be the most hotly debated aspect of the film. For some, it will ruin an otherwise keenly observed study of human behavior and interaction. However, for those who share my opinion, it will elevate the movie to a new level. Nothing prepared me for Magnolia's conclusion, and for that I am grateful.

One of the reasons the movie's energy level remains high is because of the way Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit (who collaborated on Hard Eight and Boogie Nights) vary Magnolia's visual style. Aside from the usual variety of quick cuts and close-ups, there are an unusually large number of long, unbroken takes. One is a tracking shot that follows different characters through the behind-the-scenes halls of the quiz show. Another keeps the camera in a room while two characters drift in and out. There are also some oddball moments, such as when characters sing along with a song on the soundtrack. In fact, music in general plays an important part in Anderson's approach. Not only are Aimee Mann's songs carefully woven into the movie's fabric, but the score, by Jon Brion, is almost omnipresent. During Magnolia's first two hours, nearly every scene has background music. Only during the third hour are there a significant number of traditionally scored sequences.

Although Magnolia's ending will generate most of the film's buzz, the movie begins with an enjoyably offbeat prologue that is set across three time periods: 1911 (with the hanging of three criminals), 1958 (with the homicide of a man attempting to commit suicide), and the early 1980s (with the inadvertent death of a man in a fire fighting operation). These three disconnected segments are meant to illustrate that some events, regardless of how strange or hard-to-swallow they may be, occur simply as a matter of chance. In a universe of infinite possibilities, all things, no matter how improbable, can happen. In addition to being interesting in their own right, these pre-title sequences help prepare the audience for what will occur 150 minutes later.

In a film of many strengths, nothing ranks higher in Magnolia than the quality of acting. From top to bottom, there isn't a weak link in the cast. However, when it comes to Oscar nominations, the movie will likely have a problem. Because this is an ensemble piece, with nearly everyone getting equal time, there are no leads, and everyone can't be nominated in the supporting categories. Regardless of what the Academy decides, that doesn't negate the fact that there are several deserving performers. Leading the list is Tom Cruise, who gives one of the best performances of his career (if not the best). Those disappointed by the actor's work in the recent Kubrick film will have their eyes opened wide by his effort here. He plays Frank with the fervor of an evangelist, and it's a riveting portrayal. Equally effective are Jason Robards and Melora Walters, and the rest of the acting troupe isn't far behind.

For Magnolia, Anderson has brought on board a number of repeat contributors. A significant portion of the cast of Boogie Nights has been re-united, including Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Luis Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alfred Molina. Of those, four - Walters, Reilly, Hoffman, and Hall - also appeared in Hard Eight. It's a testimony to the director's craft and dedication that so many fine actors have sought additional opportunities to work with him.

Not since Robert Altman's Short Cuts have we seen such a finely-tuned ensemble piece. Yet a direct comparison between the two films would be somewhat misleading. Thematically, at least when considering the role played by chance, there are similarities, but Altman used a different, more languid style than Anderson does. Magnolia is a kinetic picture that doesn't stop moving and rarely stays with one story for more than a couple of minutes before moving to the next. This approach allows us to get to know the principals quickly, and keeps us engaged by all of the storylines. (The tendency in this sort of movie is for the viewer to focus on one or two characters, and, in the process, lose interest in the rest.) Magnolia is admittedly not for everyone, but those who "get" the film are in for something that ranks as more of a cinematic experience than a mere movie.

Magnolia (United States, 1999)

Ranked #97 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 3:05
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1