movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 New Line Cinema, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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When Paul Thomas Anderson began writing Magnolia, he wanted "something small and intimate"--something he could shoot in 30 days. But as he wrote, his characters began to take over. Working with a theme of estrangement and parental relationships, Anderson discovered that relationships beget relationships. And soon he was weaving a complex network of characters and stories. Eventually he had at least twelve main characters and nine story lines. While the resulting movie is nearly three hours long, it nonetheless still feels intimate, but not necessarily so small anymore.

Anderson uses the accumulation of multiple stories to build the movie's intensity to levels that few single stories could ever achieve. This interconnectedness of the stories becomes a major focus of Magnolia. The movie even opens with a ten-minute prologue done in Ripley's Believe It or Not fashion that examines three bizarre cases where happenstance reaches absolutely absurd proportions. In one case, a man attempts to commit suicide by jumping off a building, but he lands in a safety net erected for window washers. That's not so strange, you say? Well, the man would have survived the fall, but on his way down he was killed by an errant bullet. As he passed by a window, his own mother fired a gun shot during a domestic dispute. The shot killed her own son immediately. Anderson teases us with crazy coincidences like this before launching into the movie's main stories. He wants to prime our eyes and brains so that we're open to accepting how the lives of his characters are interconnected.

After the prologue ends, Anderson begins introducing the main characters. His camera fluidly tracks around the participants as if the camera operators had wings, pulling us first into one story and then sliding sideways into the next. During these introductions, Anderson uses the Three Dog Night song "One" as commentary on the characters: "One is the loneliest number " It's not the most subtle of approaches, and the music is played at such a high volume level that it effectively drowns out the actors, but Anderson makes his point: the characters in this movie are terribly alone. They need and want love. They need and want someone with whom they can share their lives. But the movie reinforces their isolation. Meanwhile, the specter of cancer casts a long shadow across their lives.

Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is a wealthy television producer who is dying of cancer. With his final wish, he asks to see his son, whom he abandoned and hasn't seen in many years. Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) is the young, beautiful wife of Earl. She married him for his money, but now, as she begins to loathe her mercenary ways, she discovers a deep attachment to her dying husband. Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) is the estranged son of Earl Partridge. He's a television guru of female seduction. Just call 1-877-TAME-HER. For Frank, relationships are all about seducing and destroying. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is an ex-boy genius. In the '60s, he won thousands of dollars on a television quiz show. But time hasn't been kind to Donnie. Now he's barely hanging onto his job at an electronics store. Everything would be okay if the bartender at the corner bar would pay him some attention. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is the new boy genius on "What Do Kids Know?" He knows all the answers, but all he really wants is his father's love. However, Rick Spector (Michael Bowen) only sees his son as a means of making it rich. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the game show host. He has skeletons in his closet that explain why his daughter refuses to talk to him or show him any compassion when he tells her he has cancer. Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) is the daughter who dulls her senses with drugs, loud music, and meaningless sex. Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is a compassionate but bumbling police officer who interviews himself as he drives in the squad car. When he's called to Claudia's apartment on a disturbing-the-peace call, he soon finds himself totally smitten. Even a blind man would've known that Claudia is trouble.

All of these characters are horribly isolated in their own lives. Like the petals on a flower, each character is separate but they're linked together. And it's those links that Anderson is interested in exploring. He wants to rip back the veneers that people erect around themselves and show us why they operate as they do. He wants to show us the choices that people make and how those choices affect their lives and everyone around them.

One character, Earl Partridge's male nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the one character in the movie who isn't trying to clean up his own life. But his profession places him in the role of helping others. When he attempts to locate Earl's long-estranged son, he sets in motion a stunning sequence of events. While Frank T.J. Mackey sits down for an interview with an interviewer who has definitely done her homework on Frank's past, Phil's telephone call is slowly passed from hand to hand, gradually coming closer and closer to Frank. As Frank's assistant walks down a hallway to the room where the interview is being filmed, the interviewer's questions begin to sting Frank's ego and rip away his cocky exterior. Meanwhile Jimmy Gator (Hall) struggles while hosting "What Do Kids Know?" His illness and his personal demons have begun to tear down his smiling exterior. During this same show, quiz kid Stanley Spector is suddenly refusing to answer any questions--making his father furious in the Green Room.

Few directors outside of Robert Altman deal with groups of characters as large as Anderson does in Magnolia. If anything, though, Anderson has better instincts as a storyteller than Altman. It would be difficult to imagine as lazy and unfocused a film as Altman's Kansas City coming from Anderson's imagination. Anderson loves the coincidences and unlikely occurrences that typically plague Hollywood movies. In Magnolia, he embraces those contrivances and imbues them with nothing less than mystical powers. Anderson even brings the movie to a conclusion by utilizing a phenomena of truly astounding proportions that must be seen to be believed.

Also like Altman, Anderson has attracted his own stock company of actors. Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and Melora Walters all had starring roles in Boogie Nights. And John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Melora Walters starred in Anderson's debut feature, Hard Eight.

In Magnolia, several new (but familiar) faces appear amongst the usual Anderson troupe. Tom Cruise delivers one of the best performances of his career as a strutting, grinning womanizer who spreads his gospel through seminars where he gives away secrets such as "How to Fake Like You Are Nice and Caring." But Cruise lets us see past his bluster and smirks to the scars that mar his psyche. This is Cruise's gutsiest performance yet. Jason Robards also makes his first appearance in an Anderson movie. His role as a man dying from cancer is much more low key than Cruise's role. Before working on Magnolia, Robards had just recovered from a near-fatal illness of his own. He uses this experience to create a flawless portrait of a man struggling to make amends before he dies.

Among the Anderson veterans that appear in Magnolia, Philip Baker Hall is miscast as a game show host. Mr. Hall is many things, but he's not particularly charismatic--and he must be in order for us to believe his character is a nationally loved celebrity. But he's one of the few false notes in the movie. Julianne Moore delivers a stunning performance as the young wife of Earl Partridge (Robards). Her finest moment comes in a drugstore: after she turns in a handful of prescriptions to be filled, the drugstore assistant immediately becomes suspicious and starts making snide remarks about all the partying she could do with the drugs. Linda Partridge (Moore) does a slow burn before erupting in anger.

If there was any doubt about Anderson's stature among American directors, that doubt has been erased by Magnolia. This is a magnificent movie.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]