Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
“We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.” The meaning of that quote in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” is at the core of the film, which is a series of tales that involve grief, regrets, resentment, and sadness among their central characters. Yes, “Magnolia” is an ensemble piece (and a three-hour long one at that) with many different storylines surrounding different characters (only some of whom interconnect) while maintaining a consistent theme to make the characters’ stories parallel. This is a risky move for any filmmaker to make, but Anderson not only manages to pull it off; he really manages to pull it off. The three-hour running time is enough time to allow each character to develop and have their full story told; the characters’ stories are interesting enough to keep us invested; the filmmaking is riveting; and here’s the true test of how effective it was for me—I was so empowered by each story being told in this three-hour epic that I rarely even noticed what time it was. This is an example of a wildly ambitious project that works wonderfully.
“Magnolia” takes place in one day in rainy Los Angeles and presents a slice-of-life look at many different people. I suppose it’s best to begin by describing each character. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a child genius and a star contestant on a popular TV game show, “What Do Kids Know?” He’s a very smart kid who has every answer and the potential to win the ultimate money prize on the show, and his father couldn’t be prouder; in fact, winning the money seems to be the only thing to get his dad’s attention. The show’s host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), has terminal cancer and learned he has two months to live. He wants to try and reconnect with his daughter, a cocaine addict named Claudia (Melora Walters), but she believes (though he doesn’t remember) he molested her as a child. Meanwhile, Claudia meets a friendly but incompetent police officer, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who looks past the fact that she’s strung out on drugs and just wants to date her and possibly start a relationship.
We also meet a former champion on the show, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who has grown up and is unhappy with how his life turned out. He seeks to gain attention from someone he loves—a bartender with braces—by getting money for “corrective oral surgery” so he himself can get braces on his teeth. At the same time, we have the producer of the show, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), stricken with cancer and on his deathbed. His second wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is a young woman trying to deal with her imminent loss, and she even admits that she never really loved him and only married him for his money; this self-revelation causes her to think suicidal thoughts. Earl has a dying wish to see his estranged son. His nurse, Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), tries to fulfill that, discovering that the son is actually Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a magnetic guru who aids men in the conquering of women—his mission statement: “Seduce and Destroy.” (Aaron Eckhart’s character in “In the Company of Men” would envy this guy.) Earl abandoned Frank when he was a boy and Frank has never forgiven him, and Frank had to take care of his mother who died of cancer.
All these characters are different but also kind of similar too. The central theme of “Magnolia” could be either parental cruelty and its lasting effect on both the parents and their children or the effects of spiritual and physical cancer and looking back on life in sorrow and guilt. Two of these people, Earl and Jimmy, are dying physically, and maybe even more, such as self-destructive Claudia and depressed Linda, are not too far behind. Along with Claudia, the rest are hiding some deep mental scars brought on by the sins of the parents and have their own defenses—Frank uses his misogynistic self-help to mask his insecurities; Donnie is loving and surely losing; and the boy genius, Stanley, is being pushed by his father to keep answering correctly and go on to win the grand prize. It starts to become too much pressure for him. There are so few who try to help, the two in particular being Jim and Phil. A policeman and a nurse—the only figures who represent care and hope in these people’s lives. But they’re only available for about two or three of the people in question; the others could benefit from their help. (What makes it more upsetting is that the connections Jim and Phil make with the people they come across probably won’t last long.)
For a three-hour ensemble drama, “Magnolia” is perfectly-paced. As strange as that sounds, it was enough to keep me involved in each one of these characters’ stories. There’s a lot that happens in this film (obviously, given its running time), so I can’t say too much about the plot in this review. Even the least interesting storyline (to me, it’s the subplot involving Donnie) has something worthwhile to keep me watching. It not only helps to establish these characters in a strongly realistic portrait of how real people with similar problems behave and interact. It also helps to have a top-notch cinematographer (Robert Elswit, Anderson’s usual DP) to photograph the film beautifully; to edit it energetically; and to add a few eccentric moments, such as when all “dying” characters sing along to an Aimee Mann song playing on the soundtrack (“It’s Not Going to Stop”). But there’s also something that happens near the end…but I’ll get to that later.
Every actor/actress in this terrific ensemble cast does a spectacular job. Newcomer Jeremy Blackman is terrific as a kid under tremendous pressure; I felt for this kid at a crucial point when he realizes this game isn’t fun anymore. Julianne Moore does a great job at making Linda into someone who is always sympathetic even in times when she can be unlikable. Jason Robards delivers arguably his best scene in any film he’s been in: a heartbreaking bedridden monologue about how many regrets he has in his life now he’s at death’s door. John C. Reilly radiates a soft gentleness to his policeman character, and he and Melora Walters share a nice, offbeat relationship together. Philip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and William H. Macy are equally effective. And then there’s Tom Cruise—this may just be the best performance I’ve ever seen from this top-notch star, playing Frank with much charisma with much sadness hiding underneath. It’s a spellbinding portrayal.
It’s hard to pick my favorite scene—is it the prologue involving urban legends?; is it Stanley’s breakdown on the air?; is it Earl’s monologue about regret and guilt?; is it Frank’s tearful reunion with his dying father?; is it the beautiful sequence in which all “dying” characters (figuratively and literally) share a musical number?; is it the extraordinary, completely out-of-nowhere occurrence near the end of the film? How about the whole thing?
If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably wondering what I make of said-“extraordinary, completely out-of-nowhere occurrence.” This was a sequence that took everyone by surprise in its original release, caused many debates, and even split many audiences and critics in their overall opinion of the film (some say it was a work of genius while others say it was an unbelievable copout; if you haven’t guessed, I belong to the former group). If you don’t know what it is, I won’t reveal it here, but I will say this—nothing in the first 2 hours and 40 minutes of this film will prepare you for it. I certainly wasn’t prepared for it. It may be a copout for some people who thought it ruined a perfectly good setup of effective human conduct and communication, but to me, it only raised the film to a new level that I was fascinated by it. I found myself thinking more about it the second time I watched the film. (I also realize that without the prologue that indicates that even the most improbable things can happen in life, this ending would have made no sense at all.)
P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia” is simply a wonderful piece of work—a very well-put-together ensemble drama that quite frankly, I would even rank higher than Robert Altman’s best works. I cared about each character, I felt like I knew each of them rather than just some of them, and again, I was engaged by all their storylines, which to me is its biggest accomplishment. Maybe I understand it or I was in the right mood for it when I first watched it, but “Magnolia” was a tremendous film for me to experience.