Must-See 500: Magnolia

Tom Cruise coyly subverts his celebrity persona as an emotionally scarred man who covers his pain with sexism, in one of the many threads of P.T. Anderson's masterful "Magnolia."

“We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

Paul Thomas Anderson’s weaving, philosophical drama “Magnolia” is one of the most purely cinematic experiences you could ever receive. The brash, daring young director seems to move effortlessly through space and time, arriving at so many precise, profound juxtapositions of theme and character it makes your head spin. Most films featuring “interrelated” plot lines keep the separate stories pretty distinct, flashing back and forth from one group to the next until bringing everything to a head in one giant deus-ex-machina “ZOMG WE’RE ALL CONNECTED” moment (see: “Crash”). “Magnolia” is instead one giant, tangled narrative web; we get the sense that decisions made early on in one part of the film reverberate through every second of what follows. In fact, perhaps even more accurately, we get the sense that the events in this film were shaped by decisions made long, long before anything we actually see. Anderson’s film reaches down to the depths of fate and destiny, and despite all temptations to the contrary, avoids coming to any firm conclusion, except perhaps only that we can never understand the full consequences of our actions. The tendrils of fate spread in ways which we can never quite fully comprehend, though we instinctively feel that they are there.

I should back up for a minute and explain some basic details, though it is difficult there to know where to start and where to stop. “Magnolia” covers one day in the life of a spectrum of lost and lonely characters in LA: there is Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a forthright, religious cop with a tendency to talk to an imaginary camera; Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters), a nervous, coke-addled wreck of a girl who Jim falls for after investigating her apartment on a noise complaint; her father, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the host of a quiz show for whiz kids who has just discovered he’s dying of cancer; Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a contestant on the show; Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, in his last film appearance), the wealthy producer of the show who is also about to succumb to cancer; Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Earl’s sweet-hearted nurse; Linda (Julianne Moore), Earl’s trophy wife, confused about her feelings toward her dying husband; Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), Earl’s estranged son and author of a Cro-Magnon self-help program designed to help men “tame” women; and Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who won a large amount of money on Gator’s quiz show in the 1960’s, but is now out on his luck.

Phew. The most basic possible plot summary, and I’m already practically halfway through this review. But perhaps you get a sense now of just how intricately Anderson lays out his ensemble. Common ties emerge, even between those characters who will never meet: buried memories of loss, regret, and the mistreatment of children by their fathers perpetually bubble to the surface. Some of these people engage in self-destructive behavior; others are caring and generous, doing their best to help others. All of them are desperately seeking some kind of control over their lives, sure that if they can just say the right thing, find the right person, act the right way, it will prove that our lives are not governed merely by chance and coincidence.

Indeed, “Magnolia” opens with a mesmerizing sequence, narrated by Ricky Jay, relating three popular urban legends – stories that are generally marveled at and then quickly dismissed as just “something that happens.” I believe it is Anderson’s intention to show us the true implications of that phrase: if such bizarre incidents are just something that happens, why do we act so surprised when they do happen? In the film’s great surreal twist (which I will not reveal here; needless to say, it will most likely delight some and infuriate others, who did not catch on to Anderson’s sly bits of foreshadowing), “Magnolia” confronts us with an idea that deep down, we have all wondered for ourselves (or perhaps even feared): that there is no such thing as coincidence or random happenstance. That is not to say that Anderson is making some fatalistic argument against the concept of free will. Personal action influences the course of history, just not in the manner we normally consider. We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.

If this all sounds rather impenetrably existential to you, I assure you it’s not (or at least, mostly not). “Magnolia” works on so many levels: as a technical showcase (in addition to the film’s extraordinary editing, the stellar cast treats the film like a master class in character work; I seriously won’t even try to single performances out, lest we all get stuck here for a week), as a thoughtful, philosophical mind-fuck, and simply as a gripping drama. That’s what happens when you draw characters this vividly, with such care and precise dialogue. The people in “Magnolia” feel like echoes: echoes of us, perhaps, or of each other, or of themselves. There is both a familiarity and an emptiness to each of them, and somewhere amid the surge of sentiment they must surely find our sympathy.

There are so many indelible sequences, moments where Anderson’s bold, unapologetic visual style makes the screen practically crackle with emotional energy: Jay’s opening narration; our introduction, one-by-one, to each of the ensemble; an unbelievably audacious scene in which all the characters separately sing along to the same song. The film’s soundtrack on the whole is incredible, featuring mostly songs by Aimee Mann along with a poignant score by Jon Brion. At times the music is incessant, lending an otherworldly tension to what would otherwise be fairly normal conversations; it floats above the action, ever-present, like (I’ll say it again, just in case you didn’t get the point) fate.

“Magnolia” is a kind of cinematic opera, giving a grand, over-the-top treatment to ideas normally relegated to ponderous indie fare. It owes much to Anderson’s idol and mentor Robert Altman, particularly “Short Cuts,” but it adds Anderson’s unique, brassy visual flair (visible in his other films like “There Will Be Blood” and “Punch-Drunk Love”), confirming the young director’s reputation as a sort of mutant Altman/Martin Scorsese hybrid. It requires some dedication to make it through the full 180-minute running time, but I can guarantee you will have few film experiences that will reward your patience with such panache.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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