I’m officially at the halfway mark of my Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective. This one is a real treat, as at this point – without rewatching three of his newer films – Magnolia is my favorite PTA film. I was first introduced to it a few years ago, and it kind of kicked my cinephilia into high gear. Magnolia is a treat to watch every time; there is always a new detail or theme or storyline to examine. And my latest viewing was no exception.
Okay. A summary. This might take a while; there’s a lot going over the course of a single Los Angeles day in Magnolia. First we have Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a conflicted young contestant on What Do Kids Know?, the most difficult trivia game show ever. The show is hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), whose recent cancer diagnosis hangs over the day’s episode of the show. Jimmy’s distant daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) encounters Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) as a result of a noise complaint. They establish an uneasy flirtation, though Claudia withholds her emotional distress and drug issues, while Jim keeps mum on his outcast status in the LAPD. Meanwhile, Big Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a long-time producer on What Do Kids Know?, nears the end of his life under the watchful eye of his nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) struggles to accept the realities of his impending death, but Earl’s main concern is reconciling with his own distant child, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who has made a name for himself as a master of seduction. On the outskirts of all of this is “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former contestant all-grown-up whose development seems to have been stunted by his brush with fame, leaving a sad shell of a man.
Obviously Anderson continues to play with the ensemble form that he first tackled in Boogie Nights. He is even more ambitious with Magnolia, confining his action to a period of probably about 12 hours. The movie seems like it should be a beautiful mess, but really it is just beautiful. Everything fits together so perfectly – it is as if Anderson has made the quintessential hyperlink film, and no one ever need attempt it again (though people continue to try).
The examination of interconnectedness is evident from the start of the film. Magnolia opens with a prologue on the nature of coincidence, and just how much can be explained away by such a concept. This opening piece is unlike anything else in the movie – it is composed of anecdotes and features voice-over narration by Ricky Jay (who also appears in the film). It is the first experimental aspect of a film that is far from conventional.
Next Anderson hits the viewer with a second prologue of sorts – a montage which efficiently introduces all of the primary characters, as well as their relationships to one another. This sequence takes place over a mere matter of minutes, but does an immense amount of heavy lifting with little to no traditional dialogue exchanged.
From there Magnolia basically branches off into five distinct films: a backstage farce featuring Stanley, a romantic comedy between Jim and Claudia, a domestic drama concerning Earl’s final moments, a tragic fall-from-grace for Donnie, and a journalistic thriller built around an interview with Frank. The lines between all of these stories blur as characters drift between them, sometimes enacting further side stories. There are a lot of balls to juggle, and Anderson does so masterfully, often cutting away just when you don’t want him to, only to distract you with the next stop on his tour of regrets and mistakes.
One of the techniques the director uses to keep the audience moving with him through the three-hour runtime is the recontextualization of various characters throughout the course of the movie. Every so often one of the preconceived notions with which the audience enters the film is shattered. The characters are then pitched in an entirely new light. This allows for added dimension in all of the performances. Julianne Moore’s Linda provides a great example of this. We are introduced to her as the the much younger wife of Robards’s Big Earl, and Anderson’s script doesn’t give us much reason to consider her to be anything more than an archetypical gold-digger. Then, about an hour into the film Moore delivers a monologue that flips her in the audience’s estimation. Everyone is ashamed of something in Magnolia, but the ways that shame affects them are widely varied.
Two of the best performances in the film (and it is incredibly difficult to choose) belong to Hoffman and Cruise. Hoffman’s Phil Parma is the one character in the movie whose actions are not driven by selfish motivations. He works harder than he probably ought to in his effort to track down Frank, and it is all out if the kindness of his heart. This is bittersweet for Phil, because even though his good nature makes him Magnolia’s beating heart, this also means he receives no catharsis or recontextualization of his own. Phil is the same somewhat unfulfilled guy he was at the start, but Hoffman plays all of that with dignity.
The word “dignity” is nowhere near Cruise’s performance of a pick-up artist who advocates tricking women into believing you care and keeping “chick friends” around for the purpose of “jealousy traps.” Frank is far from a likable character, but Anderson plays on all of Cruise’s natural energy and charm to create this disgusting beacon of masculinity-gone-wrong at which you cannot help but stare. Throughout all of this, Cruise still finds levels to play, including one or two moments of surprising subtlety, brief as they may be. The actor was nominated for an Academy Award for the role and won a Golden Globe, which makes his career since all the more baffling in that it consists mostly of curt badasses. Cruise rarely chooses roles like this anymore and it is a shame (though this year’s Edge of Tomorrow is a heartening outlier).
New Line Cinema – Magnolia‘s distributor – was a pretty big studio when this film was released in 1999. They really had no business releasing such a picture; there is a sequence in the film in which every character sings along with an Aimee Mann song, and that isn’t the weirdest thing that happens. Their risk was the consumer’s gain, however, as Anderson’s masterpiece is now forever available. Magnolia cemented Paul Thomas Anderson as a unique and important voice. The filmmaker abandons greater perspective on humanity at this point, taking a greater interest in intimate character studies. Anderson has his detractors, but it is hard to deny that he hits on something in his third film, whether you find that worth in the mundanities or the experiments; both are valid.