Melora Walters and John C. Reilly star in MAGNOLIA, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson for New Line Cinema.

Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Writing about Magnolia seems a daunting prospect (I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of the film). Following the prologue, which one could (or could not) see as a way to ease the viewer into the genre–the multi-character, all connected genre (Magnolia‘s got to be the best of the genre… I can’t think of any other serious competitors–Anderson’s taken what started as Altman’s genre and did it better than Altman ever could, thanks to Anderson’s post-modernist sensibilities)–the following occurred to me: it’s too dense. Magnolia is, quite possibly, the densest motion picture ever made. The film takes place over–roughly–twenty-four hours, with a lot of emphasis put on an afternoon period between 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm. These two hours take place in about an hour and a half of screen time, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Why Tom Cruise gives his attendees lunch so late is never explained, though I’m sure Anderson has an explanation.

The film cuts between stories, often picking up exactly where it left off when it returns. It’s never made clear if the viewer is missing something, but the film certainly implies concurrent events are taking place and the order Anderson assigns to them are his choice.

I don’t know how to talk about this film. I can write a couple paragraphs about the acting (and probably will). I could do another list paragraph about the character relationships–Jason Robards and Philip Seymour Hoffman, for instance, have a couple amazing scenes together (Robards’s performance kind of ties Magnolia together for the people, while John C. Reilly’s performance ties it together the viewer). What else could I talk about? The direction–Anderson’s fantastic. He gets real showy at the beginning with an intricate montage–it’s almost like the first act set to music (before the title card, I think)–where the viewer gets all the information he or she is going to need to get going. There are some more great montages later, usually set to Aimee Mann’s songs–and, of course, the montage with the cast singing along with her song, which breaks the fourth wall and firmly establishes Anderson as the last son of Krypton–but they’re not as narratively dense as that first montage. It establishes the ground situation and acts as the dramatic vehicle. It’s a speedy move. All of Magnolia, all three hours of it, is actually a speedy move.

But Anderson isn’t just a visual director. The performances he gets out of his cast are so amazing, they frequently risk drawing the viewer off the celluloid to contemplate the filmmaking process. Especially with Robards and Cruise. The performance Anderson gets out of Cruise is singular–it engages Cruise’s movie star status while ignoring it. Again, something one can’t really discuss with any brevity. Even as good as those performances are–and one of those two gives the film’s best performance–the most impressive performance is Julianne Moore’s. While Melora Walters is in a constant state of anguish (as is William H. Macy), it’s Moore who talks about all of it. Almost all of her scenes are confessions; there’s a whole lot of explaining going on. It’s the kind of role where it looks easy, but it’s near impossible–the viewer has to ignore the information her dialogue produces immediately, instead concentrating on why she’s saying it. Her scene with Michael Murphy is one of the film’s best.

There’s a great scene where Anderson tricks the viewer. There are probably a lot of them where he tricks the viewer, actually, but I’m thinking about the one where the viewer is thinking Cruise is going to soften. It’s with Cruise the film transcends, in fact. About halfway through, he has this delivery and it’s the moment where Magnolia rises above all others. The film’s density isn’t even novel-like. It’s a film, through and through, which makes Anderson’s achievement all the greater.

Anderson has a way of drawing the supporting cast as caricatures (almost the inverse of what he does in Boogie Nights)–Felicity Huffman, Ricky Jay, Alfred Molina, even April Grace as the reporter who interviews Cruise for a significant portion of the film–these people are outside the Eye of Anderson, which defines their humanity. Even Michael Bowen–as Jeremy Blackman’s show-dad–escapes a little. Or Anderson cracks through the judgment. I need to explain–Anderson presents the entire main cast free of any judgment, which is at times difficult (Reilly ignoring information he desperately needs out of his unacknowledged racism). The supporting cast comes prejudged–they aren’t chia pets. The three hours the viewer spends with the film lets he or she judge the characters–with almost all of these judgments coming down in the film’s third act (with an exception or two). It defines why these characters are worth caring about, why they’re worth the investment of time and emotion.

At one point, with Cruise at Robards’s bedside, the film reaches an emotional boiling over (I’m observing the temperature based on my own tears). Cruise grasps his hands together and presses in an attempt to bottle in the emotion and cannot maintain. That action sums up the film itself.

But Magnolia‘s actually something of an upper. Anderson drags humanity into a mud bath and beats it with a stick for three hours, but he’s still a fan.

It’s a peerless film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Jon Brion; songs by Aimee Mann; production designers, William Arnold and Mark Bridges; produced by Anderson and JoAnne Sellar; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Tom Cruise (Frank T.J. Mackey), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator), April Grace (Gwenovier), Luis Guzman (Luis Guzman), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), Ricky Jay (Burt Ramsey), William H. Macy (Quiz Kid Donnie Smith), Alfred Molina (Solomon Solomon), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), Michael Murphy (Alan Kligman, esq.), John C. Reilly (Jim Kurring), Jason Robards (Earl Partridge), Melora Walters (Claudia Wilson), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector), Henry Gibson (Thurston Howell), Felicity Huffman (Cynthia), Emmanuel L. Johnson (Dixon), Don McManus (Dr. Landon), Eileen Ryan (Mary) and Danny Wells (Dick Jennings).


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