A Big, Bold Opera With Fathers, Sons, Daughters and Frogs
Aug 22, 2000 (Updated Aug 22, 2000)
Review by David Abrams
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:The most ambitious and successful movie of 1999 leaps off the screen like a soaring opera
Cons:The much-touted soundtrack is, at times, a big distraction
Magnolia plows through its three hours like a student driver: fast, swerving, careening off guardrails and finally coming to a sudden stop, the director’s hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel. P.T. Anderson (who also directed the similarly big-ambitioned Boogie Nights) has every right to be panting, sweating and thoroughly pleased with himself for making it through the course with only a couple of dents on the fender. This is one movie that dares to get behind the wheel and test the speed limit while the rest of Hollywood stays parked in the driveway.
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Similar in scope (though not necessarily style) to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Magnolia goes that film one better by wrapping its characters in more cohesive spiderwebs. This movie is all about coincidence and connection, with a dash of irony sprinkled in. As it follows a Day in the Life of Los Angelenos, Anderson’s movie pinballs from one person to the next picking up common threads and weaving them into a large tapestry of love, regret, forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s a stupendous achievement which is brought down only by its excesses.
P.T. Anderson aims high and extends his reach with this script. Some viewers might think he’s aimed too high and reached too far and that his bravado showmanship resembles that of another P.T. (last name, Barnum). I happen to like the writer-director’s energetic vision and spend most of my time watching his movies grinning like a fool.
Nowhere is Anderson’s energetic talent on better display than during the first six minutes of Magnolia where he leads us, documentary-style, through three different vignettes of coincidence and irony: one dealing with a turn-of-the-century murder, the next with a scuba diver who ends up in the middle of a forest fire, the last about a gut-shot suicide. I don’t dare destroy the pleasures of the sequence’s rapidly-unfolding chain of events by saying anything more. Except this: these are, bar none, the best six minutes of American cinema in 1999. Bar none.
While your head is still spinning with the delights of those opening scenes, Anderson doesn’t even pause to take a breath, but launches full steam ahead into the next blizzard of quick-cut sequences. In the space of another six minutes, he introduces us to nearly the entire cast of characters, cutting and shifting between scenes like a Vegas dealer shuffling face cards. This is one movie that has all the scope and passion of an opera.
If you’re starting to hyperventilate at the end of Magnolia’s first quarter-hour, don’t worry—the pace settles into a more manageable rhythm and we get to know the characters a little better. Eventually, we start to see how Anderson is playing a connect-the-dots game with this story, showing us the similarities between parallel lives. So much in life depends on these (sometimes tenuous) ties that bind us all together. That housewife whose cart you bump at the Sav-A-Lot Supermarket might be married to the man who just fired the gardener who once attended high school with your best friend’s little brother. And so on.
These kind of spiderweb connections will be instantly familiar to those who have tried their hand at that “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” parlor game. Here, it’s more like 82 degrees in the shade in North Hollywood. Magnolia cuts back and forth between the cast members and their stories slowly unfold, like the petals of the titular flower. Here’s a quick schematic of who’s who in the picture (For those of you who would rather discover these connections by watching the movie, feel free to skip down about seven paragraphs):
Kind-hearted cop Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly)—a patrolman so polite he wipes his feet before entering an apartment on a call—is investigating a routine disturbing-the-peace complaint when he’s struck with love at first sight by
Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters) as she opens her door. Claudia’s got a big problem (and it’s not just listening to loud music): she’s a coke addict. She’s skittish and goes through life like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. She’s numbed herself in order to block out the terrible relationship she has with her father,
Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who’s in the twilight of his career as the host of a long-running quiz show that pits adults against brainy kids. Jimmy has done plenty of things he regrets, the soured love between he and his daughter is just one of them. Now he’s dying of cancer and even his patient wife (Melinda Dillon) can’t see him through the awful moments where he stumbles on television while asking the latest “quiz kid,”
Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a question. Stanley is a brilliant 11-year-old who’s been turned into a money-making think machine by his brutally ambitious father (Michael Bowen). Poor Stanley is being robbed of his childhood; by the time he’s in his 40’s he’ll probably be an insecure has-been watching his life crumble all around him. That’s what happened to
former “quiz kid” superstar Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) who sits in a bar watching the game show on the ceiling-mounted TV. “I used to be smart, but now I'm just stupid,” he mutters to the other drunks on the barstools. He also delivers what is one of the movie’s most heartbreaking lines: “I really do have love to give; I just don't know where to put it.” Misplaced love is also on the mind of
Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), the quiz show’s producer. Earl is knocking on death’s door as cancer eats its way through his brain and lungs. When his brain isn’t soggy with morphine, he has enough strength to acknowledge the presence of his young, beautiful wife (Julianne Moore), who deals with her grief through anti-depressants. Earl’s day-shift nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), cares so much for the dying man that when he mentions that he has an estranged son, Phil makes it his mission to reunite the two men. To his surprise, Earl’s son is the famous infomercial guru
T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise). The charismatic evangelist of the male psyche, Mackey preaches the female-bashing method of “Seduce and Destroy.” The majority of his sales pitch is unprintable here, but I can tell you the toll-free number to order his books and videos is 1-877-TAME-HER. Mackey spouts a rhetoric of misogyny that will make most viewers’ hair stand on end. At heart, however, his rage against women is really a masked hatred toward the men in his audience, growing out of his feelings toward his father who abandoned him when he was a young boy.
As you can see, there are enough characters here for at least three different movies, but the grand thing about Anderson’s confident grip on the script is that they all work together, weaving their parallels into a cohesive whole. Surgically remove one of stories and watch it by itself and I’m afraid it would be downright boring; interlace them like fingers and you’ve got a downright captivating three hours.
There are, however, a couple of fingers in Magnolia that stick out like sore thumbs. For one thing, there’s a murder subplot that never gets resolved. Maybe Anderson is trying to illustrate that life is full of loose ends, but there’s enough attention devoted to the homicide in the movie that I would have liked to see this one thread tied up.
Then there’s the much-hyped soundtrack dominated by singer Aimee Mann. I admire Anderson’s idea of using songs symbolically (the movie begins with Mann singing “One is the loneliest number” and ends with “Save Me”) and his audacity at having all the characters sing along while “Wise Up” plays at top volume. However, the end result comes off as grandstanding, too much like P.T. Barnum. Anderson’s fondness for Mann even overcomes his better judgment in the final scene where the music drowns out what appears to be some important dialogue.
Nonetheless, as he showed in Boogie Nights, the director knows how to get strong performances out of his actors. Like that other audacious auteur, Orson Welles, Anderson has gathered a stellar troupe of actors from picture to picture. Hall, Hoffman, Moore, Walters and Macy have been before Anderson’s camera before and they all put another notch on their perfect-performance stick here.
Joining the troupe for the first time, Robards and Cruise also pull out all the stops. Robards’ performance as a man who’s hollowed out physically and spiritually is especially remarkable when you consider the limits of his range—the entire movie he’s lying in bed…and I can’t recall ever seeing him lift his arms. The emotional depth is all conveyed through his face and his voice.
On the other end of the spectrum, Cruise sinks his teeth into the kind of role he hasn’t seen since Born on the Fourth of July and The Color of Money. He puts his characteristic cocky swagger to good use here as a man hell-bent on exorcising his personal demons. This is also one of Cruise’s more deeply-layered performances. Look past the fiery glint in his eye and the pearly flash of his smile and you’ll see a character working on many levels. His best scenes come when he’s taken down a couple of pegs by a female journalist digging into his past and then, later, when he has an emotional meltdown at his father’s bedside.
In fact, many of the characters have similar breakdowns in the course of this one day. Everyone is moving toward convergence—some will physically intersect at their crises, others will be mirrored in the similar way they carry on. That’s the genius of Anderson’s script.
CAUTION: Spoiler ahead!
Not only do the characters boil over with suppressed emotions, but the weather’s acting pretty quirky, too. One minute, it’s raining cats and dogs; the next, it’s raining cats and frogs. Maybe not cats, but certainly frogs. It’s Anderson’s biggest cymbal (or symbol) crash—an Old Testament pestilence raining judgment on Los Angeles—and you either buy into it or you’re left snorting with derision. I bought it.
As the stories reach the boiling point of hatred, reconciliation, attempted suicide and screeching desperation, perhaps the only thing left is to bring a storm of Biblical frogs falling inexplicably from the skies. The shock of seeing that first frog strike, then smear, Officer Jim’s windshield is nothing compared to what you’ll be thinking in a few minutes when there’s an absolute torrent of amphibians. Extremely astute viewers, however, might have seen this pestilential finale foreshadowed in the opening scene in the television studio where a woman in the audience holds up a sign that reads Exodus 8:2 (this is where God, through Moses, tells Pharaoh, “If you refuse [to let my people go], I will plague your whole country with frogs”).
For such a brash, important movie the only logical conclusion is one of Biblical proportions.
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