Does happenstance play any role in our lives? Could the stranger next
to you at the mall or the movies or seated next to you on the bus/subway
or in the restaurant have a connection with you? Maybe it’s a distant
relative or perhaps someone with whom you attended kindergarten. Topics
like these are raised in MAGNOLIA, the latest opus from wunderkind
writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.
MAGNOLIA (named for a street in the San Fernando Valley where the
primary action occurs) is the kind of film that one will either love or hate.
If you love it, there is much to appreciate, from the swooping camera work
and slick editing to the somber soundtrack enhanced by several songs
written and sung by Aimee Mann to the stellar cast. If you hate it, well,
you hate it. You will call it overindulgent, long, boring and confusing. I’m
firmly in the former camp. This is an amazing achievement and a heartening
sign that there are filmmakers who are interested in exploring human nature
Anderson makes a giant leap right from the start by establishing
his theme of life as a series of odd and curiously related occurrences by
recounting three tales that have the tenor of urban legend (but are
purportedly true). In each, a twist of fate leads to bizarre results. When
the main action kicks in, Anderson focuses on nine separate stories, all
of which are in some ways tenuously connected. He overlays the
groundwork of maverick director Robert Altman who in films as varied
as NASHVILLE and SHORT CUTS took a similar multi-layered approach.
While Anderson doesn’t really break new ground, he does make leaps in
his maturation as a filmmaker. His first full-length film HARD EIGHT
(a.k.a. SIDNEY) was a character study of a professional gambler and
began his association with actors like Philip Baker Hall and John C Reilly.
BOOGIE NIGHTS explored the behind-the-scenes world of porno films
and centered on a John Holmes-like novice (played by Mark Wahlberg).
While the acting in that film was generally superb (costars Burt Reynolds
and Julianne Moore earned supporting nods in the annual Oscar derby),
BOOGIE NIGHTS had a tendency to be too all-encompassing. Several
subplots were extraneous to the central story and slowed the action too
much. While some of that is true in Magnolia as well, Anderson seems
in better command of the material.
One cannot really summarize the plot of the film, but thematically
the movie maker appears to be dealing with issues of coincidence, psychic
twinship (nearly every character has a doppelgänger) and most particularly,
the parent-child relationship. The major plot points in MAGNOLIA all
revolve around parents (mainly fathers) and children. In each case, there
has been a breakdown in the conventional relationship and part of what
the characters are striving for is a resolution and perhaps an absolution.
There were several religious themed films released in 1999, and
arguments could be made that MAGNOLIA was one. Anderson does
not name the mysterious forces at work in his story. For audience
members of a spiritual bent, it could be God; for the secular, Fate.
However one looks at it, it is an intriguing premise that Anderson (the
director as Supreme Being) brings to surprising and unexpected
Like Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson has built a troupe of actors
with whom he is comfortable working. In nearly each and every case, he
has hired the best actors for the roles. Of the large ensemble cast several
stand out including Philip Baker Hall as a TV game show host, Melinda
Dillon as his long-suffering wife, Melora Walters as their troubled
daughter, John C. Reilly as her police officer beau, Jason Robards as
a dying television mogul, Philip Seymour Hoffman as his caretaker,
William H. Macy as a former child celebrity, Jeremy Blackman as a
child genius and Tom Cruise as a charismatic sex guru with a surprising
tie to one of the other major characters. Of the primary figures only
Julianne Moore has been handed a role that stymies her. As the
trophy wife of a rich man, this usually fine actress is asked to play
the one-note of hysteria. Try as she might she is defeated by the
ill-conceived character. But this is a minor flaw in an otherwise
excellent film. Although it runs three hours, the time flies by, but
because Anderson has packed so much information in, it is almost
necessary to view the film more than once to gain a full appreciation
for what this talented young writer-director has accomplished.
MPAA Rating: R
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.