In its ambitious scope and grand operatic style, “Magnolia,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s eagerly awaited followup to “Boogie Nights,” confirms his status as one of the most audacious filmmakers in Hollywood today. This imposing tapestry about the mysterious workings of fate and coincidence and the need for interconnection and love interweaves the stories of a dozen characters as they embark on a moral odyssey during one intense day in their tumultuous lives. A superlative ensemble headed by Tom Cruise (in his best dramatic turn to date), Jason Robards, Melora Walters and Julianne Moore gives this meditation on urban alienation the aura of a major work highly in tune with the zeitgeist. But a running time of more than three hours, the largely downbeat tone and other demands on viewers will curtail pic’s commercial appeal, resulting in moderate B.O.
Self-discipline, not talent, is the major issue in Anderson’s career. In his new movie, as in the previous ones, he proves to be an astute writer making sharp observations about the human condition, a flamboyant, high-voltage visual stylist and a terrific actors’ director — here he coaxes splendid performances from a cast that consists of about 30 speaking parts. What Anderson lacks, however, is restraint in telling his complex postmodern tale. “Magnolia” suffers not only from an exorbitant running time but from the excessive, abrasive visual approach and musical mode, including several repetitive montages, in which the fractured tale unfolds.
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Despite rave reviews, “Boogie Nights” didn’t play well in the ‘plexes due to its subject matter, the porn industry. But those who saw it were surprised by the sweet nature of the saga, which succeeded in making its offbeat characters accessible and likable. The problems with “Magnolia,” arguably a more ambitious and mature work, are not so much thematic as structural and stylistic.
A brief prologue, which sets the film’s disturbing tone, presents three acts of violence, jumping among a 1911 prison yard, a 1958 tenement and the early 1980s. Accompanied by voiceover narration, this unconventional overture signals pic’s dominant motifs: the role of chance in life and the notion that “strange things happen all the time.”
At the center of the elaborate maze, set in the San Fernando Valley area of L.A., is patriarch Earl Partridge (Robards), a dying man who’s forced to come to terms with his failures — specifically, cheating on his loyal first wife and irresponsibly walking out on her, leaving their only son, Frank Mackey (Cruise), to care for his mother when she’s sick with cancer. Earl is now married to the much younger Linda (Moore), who tends to be hysterical and can’t deal with his impending death. The burdensome routines of his care are carried out by Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a devoted nurse who’s unable to separate his professional duties from his emotional involvement with Earl.
Refusing to see Earl, or even acknowledge his existence, Frank is a seductive guru who runs popular, high-priced seminars that teach angry, frustrated men how to get their way with women. Frank markets his philosophy — “Respect the Cock” — in brilliantly staged sequences that are more unsettling than the similarly themed scenes in “The Fight Club.” As with all the characters, a chain of weird circumstances forces Frank to come to terms with his family and past.
The most emotionally engaging — and splendidly acted — story centers on the travails of a compassionate, religious cop, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who’s prone to babbling about the importance of “doing good and helping others.” During one of his routine calls, Jim drops in on Claudia (Melora Walters), a high-strung woman who’s addicted to drugs and loud music. Their interaction begins with yelling and screaming, with Claudia insisting that she wants to be left alone, but eventually she consents to go out on a date with Jim, and a tentative courtship follows.
The weakest section (which could be cut by half) is a TV quiz game, hosted by veteran Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who is Claudia’s father. This yarn brings to the surface the conflict between Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), a father living off the brilliance of his genius son, Stanley (Jeremy Blackman).
Anderson introduces his dramatis personae in a bold, original manner, constructing for each character a parallel or an opposite. Stanley is juxtaposed with Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a ’60s quiz show star who’s now reduced to a routine job at an electronics store, hoping that some pricey dental work will provide his salvation and bring much needed love to his dull existence.
The narrative is divided into three parts, designated by titles that describe the weather (“light showers, high humidity”). The organizing principle of the sprawling material is that of the duo, with each interaction marked by the changing balance of power and control. This is particularly evident in the relationships between professionals and their patients or clients; Linda attacks her pharmacist, TV game players disobey their host and his rules, various residents scream at the well-meaning cop.
If “Boogie Nights” was unmistakably influenced by Scorsese’s style, “Magnolia,” which is named after a boulevard near which most of the action unfolds, invites comparison to Altman’s “Short Cuts” and to John Sayles’ political drama “City of Hope,” two mosaics of American life woven through a series of darkly comic vignettes. All three films present a poignant portrait of human and urban malaise, underlined by hidden elements of a crisis that threatens to erupt. Similar to Altman, who employed the device of an earthquake to unify his self-absorbed characters, Anderson uses a ferocious and surreal rain of frogs to bring his lonely characters together.
But “Magnolia” avoids the bitter and cynical tone of “Short Cuts,” ending with a series of emotionally satisfying reconciliations. And it lacks “City of Hope’s” schematic melodrama; Anderson views all his characters with empathy. With a style that’s full of quirks and surprises, he turns a perceptive gaze on such traditional American traits as unbridled materialism and uncontrollable dependency on the mass media, as well as such values as monogamous marriage and familial love.
Ace lenser Robert Elswit works wonders with his dynamic, mobile camera. In a bravura sequence that borrows from opera and musical theater, all the characters burst out singing, with the camera conveying their disparate locations and moods. The interdependent plot lines are set to the songs of Aimee Mann, whose music becomes part of the film’s warp and weft. Her title song, “Save Me,” fits the film’s melancholy mood like a silk glove.
Peppered with beguiling appearances (with luminous turns by Cruise, Walters, Hall and Reilly) and piercing commentary on both estrangement and renewal, “Magnolia” is a remarkably inventive and audacious film that almost overcomes its flaws.