by dan heaton
(A note of caution: The last few paragraphs of this review give away important parts of the plot which do not occur until the very end of the film. Just thought you should know.)
"You may be through with the past, but the past a'int through with you."
Magnolia examines a collection of characters facing the ghosts (dead and living)of their past. It begins with a series of short vignettes about strange coincidences and unexplained events. Narrator Ricky Jay describes the odd occurrences, and leads us into the story. But this is not a quirky small film about bizarre events in daily life. Instead, director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Hard Eight) quickly introduces 11 major characters who all have their own stories to tell. With inventive visual techniques and little explanatory dialogue, he presents a basic overview of each individual. This immediately creates a quick impression of each character in our minds and begins the story of a single tumultuous day in their lives.
In a single day, Anderson explores the emotional conflicts of a dying father and estranged son, a quiz show host with unforgivable acts in his past, a quiz kid and his domineering father, and several other stories. What do all of these people have in common? Some relate by blood, and others meet in the context of the story. But what draws them together is more ethereal. They share the bond of being human, of facing up to the past, and trying to salvage happiness in life. A surprising musical interlude displays this connection in a riveting manner. As Aimee Mann's beautiful voice sings "It's not going to stop `til you wise up," each character takes a moment and joins the song to create a wonderful sequence. This sequence is the most awe-inspiring moment in any film this year, and it succeeds without a dramatic speech or pricey special effects. This segment easily could have become camp with a lesser director, but Anderson utilizes it brilliantly to unify the film into one coherent statement.
The success of Magnolia rests largely on the shoulders of the talented cast, who take advantage of the clever, ambitious script. Anderson creates extended emotional scenes that offer them the artistic freedom seldom available in a Hollywood film. There are no mediocre performances in this film. The standout performance, primarily because of his star power, comes from Tom Cruise. He made his name in the 1980s with his "egotistical stud" roles in films such as Top Gun, Cocktail, and Days of Thunder. Even in his worst films, however, Cruise still retains some dignity and rises above the sour material. As his career has progressed, Cruise has proven his acting abilities (if there was any doubt) in Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, and more recently in Jerry Maguire. All three films present a variation on his usual role by presenting amore three-dimensional, human figure behind the handsome visage. Tom Cruise takes the stud role to the extreme in Magnolia as Frank T.J. Mackey, a motivational speaker for "Seduce and Destroy." His initially despicable character teaches lowlife males how to use women solely to satisfy their needs. With lessons such as "How to Fake that You're Nice and Caring" and other more graphic titles, his ideas are appalling, but Cruise commands the screen and makes Frank a fascinating character. There are no simple characters in this film, and his story presents a prime example of the past's continuous influence on a person's life. In his best scene, Cruise glowers in silent rage as a sly journalist (April Grace) ambushes him and tears off the scabs of his past. A silly, Entertainment Tonight-style interview becomes an interrogation, and his response is perfect. This adds new layers to his flamboyant, chauvinistic character. As the film progresses, and he confronts his dying father, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), Cruise gradually reveals the pain in Frank's heart.
While Cruise succeeds with a meatier role, Philip Seymour Hoffman (Boogie Nights, Happiness) gives a remarkably subtle performance. As Phil Parma, the nurse to the dying Earl Partridge, he emits a quiet sincerity and truly cares for the angry old man. The story does not explore Phil's past, but Hoffman still depicts a three-dimensional young man with real emotions. While he frantically searches for Earl's son, Frank T.J. Mackey, Phil presents a touching example of genuine kindness. When he sobs in the old man's waning moments, it does not feel melodramatic or sappy. Hoffman's performance hits all the right notes, and evokes the underlying message of hope in the film. Phil's humane acts are believable and touching, and he helps Frank to tackle the demons of his past.
The overall screenplay succeeds because nearly all of the stories feature complex, thoughtful people with important ideas to express. An especially intriguing character is quiz kid Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), an introverted genius who faces manipulation from his overbearing father. While Stanley struggles under the boot of his father, former quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) stumbles around a bar in a lonely stupor. In an inventive method of foreshadowing, Anderson presents the type of man Stanley could become. One unfortunate drawback of this connection is that Donnie Smith is not that interesting, and his scenes appear a bit forced and unnecessary. Macy does an excellent job, but cannot go as far with his character as others in the film. This is the one point where Anderson stumbles as a screenwriter, but I still applaud the effort. When Stanley finally breaks and speaks out to the crowd of the show What do Kids Know?, it is a surprisingly honest and disturbing statement about a child's role in society today. The editing of the quiz show scene is impressive because it does not focus just on Stanley. We also see Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the famous quiz show host, who is struggling with terminal cancer and the errors in his past. While the show progresses, Anderson also cuts quickly between the lives of the other characters. This creates the perfect dramatic tension, and the excellent work by the ensemble cast boosts the excitement.
Magnolia is filled with wonderful moments of passion and emotion. Julianne Moore faces the difficult task of playing Linda, Earl's trophy wife, who is facing a crisis of conscience. In her finest moment, she lets loose a flurry of emotions onto two suspicious pharmacists. Moore overacts in several of her scenes, especially the "shut the fuck up" confrontation with her lawyer. In the pharmacy, however, it's fascinating to watch her slowly crumble as her troubles come to the forefront. The dalliances of Linda's past are eating away at her conscience, and she cannot escape them. Moore's emotions in the scene are perfect, and give Linda a realistic human touch that is lacking from a few earlier scenes. I also loved the relationship between Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a kind-hearted cop, and Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walter), a troubled junkie. They share an honest moment in the center of the film that surprised me in its variance from the usual "Hollywood date" scene. Reilly presents Jim as a mediocre cop and apparently judgmental individual, and then reveals the true goodness and love that lies underneath. In his police work, Jim's comments sound as if he's speaking from a policeman's handbook. In Claudia, he finds a woman so enthralled by his goodness that his shortcomings are acceptable. Their scenes provide hope that maybe people can overcome their troubled pasts with a combination of trust and genuine honesty. In their poignant final scene, with Jim speaking from his heart, Anderson pulls back and focuses not on his words. Instead, we see Claudia's joyous face over the poignant sounds of Aimee Mann's "Save Me." We don't know if their relationship will work, but this moment is a stirring example of the power of this film.
Definitely the most ambitious and initially confusing scene is the downpour of frogs at the film's climax. The event is so shocking and silly at the same time that it's hard to digest and understand while viewing the film. I believe that this scene played a large role in alienating mass audiences (and possibly the Academy) away from Magnolia. When I saw the film, several filmgoers laughed, and I heard some statements of "that is stupid" from across the audience. This scene to me is probably the oddest event in any film this year. However, Anderson did not create this sequence for sheer shock value or craziness. I applaud his effort to stretch the boundaries of a story and the ambition does pay off in the long run. Taken in biblical terms, the downpour of frogs could represent divine intervention, an aid from an unexplained higher power to the struggles of humans. By exploring the actions of several characters during and after this event, I can make an argument for this idea. First of all, Jimmy Gator has just confessed his terrible past dalliances to his wife, who has shunned him and fled the house. In a moment of depression, he decides to eat a bullet. At this moment, the frogs descend to the earth, and cause him to miss with the fatal shot. Second, Donnie Smith has just robbed his boss, but has broken his key in the door and left fingerprints on the safe. His life will be over, and his destiny is a jail sentence. However, because of the frogs, he is injured, and Jim Kurring stops his car to help him out. As a result, Jim makes Donnie return the money, and even though Donnie's life still is a mess, a slight amount of hope exists for him. The best evidence comes from Earl Partridge, who is startled from his dying moments by the frogs to catch one last look at his son sitting near his death bed. This angry, regretful old man dies content because he caught one glimpse of his estranged son before death. Everyone's life changes because of this unexplainable event, and a glimmer of hope is restored to the area. A chance now exists for them to "wise up," face their past, and save their souls before it is too late.
In his second feature, Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson displayed his directorial talents with a variety of mesmerizing scenes, especially in its first half. Unfortunately, I felt that it became bogged down by the third act, and eventually lost its luster and purpose. He presented complicated views on the characters, but I started to lose interest and not care about their lives as the story progressed. In Magnolia, Anderson returns many of the same cast with higher ambitions, and he succeeds by letting the actors control the story. All of the main characters receive time to speak their minds, and it enthralled me for the entire three-hour length of the film. Anderson's direction is inventive, and he has improved as a writer by giving the actors freedom to inhabit their characters. Critics are constantly complaining about the lengths of films today, even when they barely stretch over two hours. As the credits rolled after three hours of Magnolia, I wanted to see more.