USA, 1999. Rated R. 179 minutes.
Cast: Jason Robards,
Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Melora
Walters, Jeremy Blackman, Michael Bowen, William H. Macy, Philip Baker
Hall, Melinda Dillon, Emmanuel Johnson, Henry Gibson, Luis Guzman, Felicity
Huffman, Ricky Jay, Alfred Molina
|Grade: A+||Review by Dana Knowles|
hough I'm tempting fate by inviting slings and arrows from what will prove to be an enormous chorus of doubters, I just have to say it anyway: Magnolia is a masterpiece. Is it flawless? No. But it's the most audacious, courageous, and cinematically complex filmmaking of the year... a deeply collaborative tightrope walk of immense proportions. Paul Thomas Anderson's exquisite tone poem to anguish and salvation is ridiculously ambitious. Structured more like music than like narrative film, it unfolds in a series of meticulously structured and rendered movements, each with a distinct rhythm and tone of its own. The seamless adjustments made by this amazing ensemble cast and the stellar artists responsible for cinematography, editing, and music seem nothing short of miraculous. Everyone is on the same page at every turn, and it's exhilirating to witness that. I suspected that it might turn out to be a masterpiece when it reduced me to actual weeping. Not the dignified lone tear sneaking down my cheek sort of weeping. The quivering jaw with tears streaming uncontrollably sort of weeping. I realized then that I was weeping as much out of a film-buff's gratitude for the awesome artistry of the accumulation of sequences that induced those tears as I was for the sadness up on the screen. And that's where the line is bound to be drawn around this film. If you're not moved by the how, you probably won't be inordinately moved by the what.
The most common comparison made in any mention of Magnolia is to Robert Altman's Short Cuts, a film that is also set in Los Angeles and (like much of Altman's work) juggles multiple characters and storylines that may or may not ultimately intersect. While there's no question that Altman is an inspiration to Anderson's narrative structure in that regard, the relevant similarities stop there. In filmmaking terms, Magnolia bears a closer resemblance to Titanic than to Short Cuts. Anderson is employing the medium with the same level of single-minded deliberation that Cameron brought to his romantic epic, though the two films couldn't be more different in style or in the details of the what that they're presenting. This kind of filmmaking is manipulation of the highest order... entreating you to surrender to a very specific vision, and (if you're game) rewarding that surrender with the two best things you can hope to find in a film: the sense that you've somehow been transported somewhere else, and the unquantifiable pleasure of having a genuine emotional response. Those who resist–focusing merely on the surface of story or character development–will almost certainly find it wanting. Those who let Magnolia take them where it wants to go will later discover that it returns the favor. This is a movie that follows you home if you show it an ounce of love.
The Big Picture
Magnolia has a story, but it's not really about story at all. It's about intimacy and isolation, forces that collide catastrophically in an alarming number of ways, but also converge from time to time, bringing a measure of grace that redeems and repairs us. Anderson's approach to these characters and their stories is fascinating and incredibly daring. The settings are realistic, but the overall tone is surreal and often absurd. Onto this foundation he places the actors, whose impeccable performances ground the film with a profoundly resonant emotional realism. It shouldn't work, but it does. And the reason it works is because Anderson's strategy is to meditate on intimacy by employing intimacy itself. He's less concerned with the particulars of what happens to these characters than he is with what's happening inside of them. Each individual's progression is a variation on his primary thematic hook: pain evolving into dread evolving into panic evolving into anguished surrender. It's up to the actors to let us inside of this, and Anderson knows exactly when and how to frame those moments of intimate exchange between character and audience. Blessed with a cast that truly understands what he's going for, Anderson accomplishes a genuine rarity: a directorial extravaganza that's equally an actors' showcase.
The storylines and characters revolve around two dying men, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) who - as it turns out - are also connected, effectively connecting their separate spheres to one another, and thus connecting each individual character to the rest. Partridge is a wealthy man trapped in his luxurious deathbed, tended to by a hospice nurse named Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His attendant family consists only of fur-clad trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), but he also has an estranged son named Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), whom he hasn't seen in decades. The other dying man is still mobile, but no less doomed. Jimmy Gator is the beloved host of the longest running game show in America, What Do Kids Know? He's got a loving and loyal long-term wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon), and–like Earl–also has an estranged child, an adult daughter named Claudia (Melora Walters), whose troubled life causes her to intersect with a sweet and lonely cop named Jim (John C. Reilly). Additionally, Jimmy's job connects him to the remaining major characters, one a young contestant named Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), who's on the verge of breaking some sort of record on the show, the other a former contestant who became famous nationwide as "quiz kid" Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) back in the '60s.
Magnolia opens with a goofy series of urban legend-like tales, each played for irony and humor... all of which suggest that coincidence is commonplace and that if something can possibly happen, sooner or later, it probably will. Interestingly, a cursory glance at the film that follows may make the prologue seem bafflingly disconnected from the stories that it introduces. Upon closer examination, however, Anderson's delicate and subtle manifestation of coincidence and irony in the main body of the film reveals itself mostly in the structural ebb and flow. This is not a film full of plot contrivances that will generate a big ah-ha! at the end. The essence of the irony and coincidence at the heart of Magnolia is, instead, the precise convergence of emotional experience shared by a disparate (but fundamentally connected) group of people. It's as if anguish is a unified force festering inside of each of them individually but connecting them spiritually, ultimately bubbling up and boiling over with awesome synchronicity. This effect is beautifully realized in carefully choreographed sequences that convey the rising tide of emotional crisis that they face collectively, even as they experience those crises in existential isolation.
As for the more specific elements of the tale and its inhabitants, here's a thumbnail sketch of the various pains on view. The most obvious pain belongs to Earl Partridge, who is doped and dazed to ease the physical torture of the last stage of death by cancer. He's also in emotional distress, confusedly calling out for his long-gone first wife, and yearning to see his son before the curtain drops on his life. That son is a slimeball male-empowerment guru... the self-named Frank Mackey, a man so consumed by rage that his life's work is a complex recipe for the methodical victimization of women, which he passes along via revival-tent style seminars for frustrated men. Earl's wife Linda–perfectly coiffed, attired, and arranged–scurries from location to location, frantically gathering medications and advice as she buckles under the weight of reality and spirals into a state of unquenchable self-loathing. At the center of this familial freak-out zone is hospice nurse Phil, ministering to the dying man and his troubled wife and son with such extraordinary tenderness and deep concern that their separate crises eventually become his own.
Meanwhile, in that other branch of this web, Jimmy Gator wrestles with the bombshell discovery of his own hopelessly advanced cancer. Determined to continue on as if nothing is wrong at work, he's equally driven to affect reconciliation in the personal realm by dropping in on and revealing his tragedy to the daughter who hates him. That daughter is the woefully messed up Claudia, a walking disaster area who is as utterly consumed by sorrow as Frank Mackey is by rage. Her wounds are salved by retreat into profound disconnection, a state that is fueled by an overwhelming dependence on cocaine, and deepened by meaningless sexual encounters. The confrontation with her father ultimately results in the arrival of LAPD officer Jim Kurring, whose intervention is instigated by the concerned call of a neighbor. Officer Jim is a sad-sack naif saddled with a deep desire to do good in the world, and an even deeper desire to find love... both for himself and as a presence among the wreckage that he sees from behind his badge.
And then there are the children. Stanley Spector is a wunderkind, possessing an extraordinary wealth of trivial knowledge, which makes him the awe-inspiring star of Gator's game show. Parented by an obnoxiously ambitious actor-wannabe father (Michael Bowen), he is essentially parentless. In addition, his fame and his achievements have left him in total isolation at school, where the administration aids their favorite son's success by giving him a space in the library for self-education in lieu of attendance in a classroom. Burdened by astounding pressure from every quarter to top himself, Stanley begins to recognize that he has ceased to be a person to others, existing instead as a breadwinning dog and pony show that will not be allowed to disappoint. The other child is legendary "quiz kid" Donnie Smith, a man whose development seems to have stopped cold shortly after his victory on the same game show. In spite of all the intellectual brilliance implied by his early success, he's incapable of holding down the simplest of jobs in the adult world. He's like a breathing fossil, so thoroughly encased in the identity he forged in childhood that he can't find a way out of it, a state of affairs reinforced by the fact that he is still recognized as the "quiz kid" by strangers on the street. Empty as it is, it's all he has, which drives him to identify himself as such if strangers fail to recognize him on their own.
Each of these characters is nearing the edge of a precipice, and each will fall. The brilliance of Magnolia's conceit is that it links these people by their interior journeys instead of linking them solely by plot or physical connections. Like the separate instruments in an orchestra, their crises blend and play off of one another, resulting in a wacked-out symphony of longing and dread. Alternating between music-driven set pieces and sequences that are entirely devoid of music, each segment of Magnolia has its own pitch, relating - of course - to the collective emotional tenor. The characters are introduced and briefly established in a whiz-bang montage of swooping shots, all of which are set to Aimee Mann's wistful-yet-soberly-matter-of-fact rendition of the classic chestnut, "One" (in all, there are four Mann songs featured prominently, each one to marvelous effect). This sequence is followed by a (music-free) closer look at each character and his/her circumstances, with the pace of the editing slowed down to allow for sustained scenes, and the camera slowed or stopped altogether. This is, in turn, followed by another music-driven sequence with pacing somewhere between the two extremes, driving the stories forward and fleshing out the characters. Subsequent sequences up the ante as the characters get closer to the edge. The inventiveness and facility that Anderson demonstrates in constructing this labyrinth of emotion is beyond remarkable. It astonishes! His dextrous manipulations build upon one another so effectively that he is freed to employ a brilliant and savvy simplicity when the biggest emotional moment of all arrives. In a sequence at the 3/4 mark that will stand on its own as a classic achievement, Anderson eschews the assistance of music or dynamic camera moves and hands the film over to the actors. It's the collective boiling point being reached, and the story unfolds almost entirely in the faces and body language of these magnificent performers, culminating in a narrative device so off-the-wall and risky that - in the hands of another cast or a lesser director - it could easily have sunk under the weight of its own ambitions and played as laughable. Instead, it is exquisitely devastating... conjuring the sort of emotional response that cuts to the bone in a way that is almost shocking.
The performances are uniformly amazing. Jason Robards barely moves at all and is often unconscious, but still manages to contribute an indelible portrait of a man facing the ultimate defeat. At one point, Robards takes command of the film's emotional climax with little more than his marvelously angry and weary voice. Philip Baker Hall creates a complex portrait of acute (but restrained) desperation, also subtly conveying the vaguely arrogant disbelief of a privileged man who can't quite fathom that he should be subject to death in the first place. Julianne Moore is a bundle of barely-contained panic, searching in vain for ways to fix the unfixable and coming both hilariously and horrifyingly unglued in the process. William H. Macy is practically naked as the pitiful manchild Donnie, a character guaranteed to make even the most sympathetic and generous viewer squirm. Jeremy Blackman is terrific as young Stanley, allowing us to see the brave–but futile–desire to please drain slowly from his eyes. Melinda Dillon, Henry Gibson, Luis Guzman, Felicity Huffman, MIchael Bowen, Emmanuel Johnson, and Alfred Molina are all excellent in small roles.
Among this crowd, it's almost ludicrous to deem individual performances as stand-outs, but credit must be given where due. Tom Cruise is perfect as the despicable Frank. Cruise is an actor playing a man who's playing a role... a non-stop preacher for his cause and his persona, relentlessly surging at the world and other people as if he's an unstoppable wave of energy. This guy doesn't just believe that the best defense is a good offense, he's absorbed the credo into every molecule of his being. Cruise is funny, scary, loathesome, and note-perfect. He's been criticized for his work in one big emotional scene, but I felt that what may appear to some as clumsy acting was behavior true to the character's control-freak nature. In any case, love or hate him in that moment, it's only one moment. The remainder of his performance is a show-stopper.
Equally captivating is Melora Walters as the terrified and pathetic Claudia. A major-league cokehead, she often appears to be on the verge of jumping right out of her own skin, which, as it happens, is precisely what she'd most like to do if she could. Walters manages to make her both aggravating and adorable, a wounded girl peeking out from behind the eyes of a jittery woman who simply cannot cope. She's as funny as she is heartbreaking in this audacious portrait of overwhelming neediness and fear. Claudia vividly encapsulates the concentrated essence of what ails them all, and Anderson wisely–and beautifully–gives her the last shot of the film.
All that having been said, the true revelations in this cast are the unheralded character actors who play the twin angels of mercy in this piece: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. As nurse Phil Parma, Hoffman gracefully and hauntingly exudes the deep compassion that is the backbone of the film itself. Each and every moment that Hoffman is on screen is quietly powerful, and his performance is absolutely lovely, even in the tiniest details. In terms of screen time and dialogue, it's a relatively small part, but Phil is utterly crucial to the emotional impact of the whole, and Hoffman is more than up to the task. Phil is the slowly unraveling calm at the center of a cataclysmic personal storm that has nothing whatsoever to do with him. Hoffman gives Phil's heroics tremendous poignance by portraying them as the unherioc actions of a man who's just trying to do what's needed. He never tries to inject even an ounce of nobility into the character, which has the incredible result of generating a sense of authentic and deeply moving heroism and nobility. This is Hoffman's best work to date (and that's saying something!), made all the more remarkable by its simplicity and its heartrending openness.
The most challenging role in the film is the one that - to most people - will appear to have been the easiest... John C. Reilly's Officer Jim. Despite the fact that he's a bit of a dimwit, Jim is gravely serious about his responsibilities as a cop, resulting in a character that is a bit like Barney Fife without the arrogance. It would have been easy to play him for cheap laughs, but Reilly digs deep and finds the irresistably decent and lovable humanity at his core. His absurdly earnest conviction seems pathetically clueless at the start, but reveals itself to be a remarkably endearing quality as the film progresses. Like Melora Walters, Reilly manages to walk the line between hilariously funny and heartbreakingly poignant without ever losing his balance. It's wonderful, wonderful stuff, but likely to be overlooked by many in favor of the flashier roles filled by higher-profile performers. Sigh.
Are there flaws or weaknesses in Magnolia? Yes. But oddly, they flow directly from the film's strengths. One problem arises because the emotional climax comes before the last act and is rendered so powerfully that it seems to take the air out of the next section of the film. I'm sure there are those who would argue that it never recovers... that the last act is flat-out awful. But I'd heartily disagree. Anderson has somewhere else he wants to go before he closes the curtains, and only a crazy man would have taken his path, which–for me–makes it doubly exhilarating. Anderson has the audacity to cut short our emotions and induce bafflement and shock, a shift in state of mind that mirrors the response of the characters within the film. After building a bond of operatic intimacy with these people that makes them larger than life, he dares to render them utterly insignificant, allowing the truth of our existential predicament to ring clear. Nothing is more genuinely important–or less genuinely significant–than the inner life of one human being. The real question raised at this moment is whether that shift will derail the resonance of the grander themes, or whether Anderson can reel us back in and make us care even more. He does, and I did.
It could legitimately be said that Magnolia's story is minimal in terms of plot or action. It could also be said that the revelations about various characters are nothing new to modern cinema, and that the specific points being made about the human condition aren't earth-shatteringly original. But these criticisms miss the aim of the film entirely. It's not meant to be an exposé of social hypocrisies or a complex character study. Nor is it meant to be a wacky thrill-ride of plot twists and ironic intersections. It means to be what it is: a carefully choreographed immersion into the dark despair of people engulfed in anger, fear and regret. Unfolding slowly and gracefully like a flower in bloom, it reaches achingly for the light of hope and salvation. Manolia is courageously bold filmmaking that manages–in spite of its sprawling complexity–to become the essence of simplicity: a haunting ode to the awesome power of forgiveness.
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