Random Lives, Bound by Chance
“Magnolia” is drunk and disorderly on the pure joy of making movies. A frantic, flawed, fascinating film that is both impressive and a bit out of control, often at the same time, “Magnolia” may occasionally overshoot its mark, but it’s the kind of jumble only a truly gifted filmmaker can make.
That would be writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose last film, “Boogie Nights,” was a nervy, assured and empathetic look at pornography in the 1970s, San Fernando Valley style. Also set in the Valley and also involving numerous interlocking stories, “Magnolia” is if anything more involved and ambitious than its predecessor.
Taking place during a single 24-hour period in today’s Valley, “Magnolia” uses the interconnected tales of its nine protagonists (acted by Anderson veterans such as John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman and newcomers including Tom Cruise, who almost steals the picture) to form a frenzied slice of our life and times.
“Magnolia’s” people are searching for happiness, having trouble making human connections, and, more specifically, trying to come to terms with what’s come before. “We’re through with the past,” is how one character puts it, “but the past isn’t through with us.”
Another key element, perhaps the key element, in this scenario is the role played by coincidence and chance. In fact, “Magnolia” starts with a bravura prelude that shows three examples of truly boggling coincidences, alleged to be as true as they are strange, that took place in 1911, 1958 and the early 1980s. This crackling sequence, filled with jazzy visuals tossed off casually but with genuine cinematic flair, is the film’s most irresistible. It overflows with Anderson’s unstoppable zest for cinema (the 1911 sequence was even shot with a vintage hand-cranked Pathe camera) and its infinite storytelling possibilities.
When it comes to introducing the film’s horde of characters, Anderson, cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor employ a similarly dazzling rapid-fire approach. With Aimee Mann’s haunting vocals washing over everything (Anderson says her music was a key source of inspiration), “Magnolia’s” people are presented so rapid-fire it feels as though we’re meeting them all at the same time.
“Magnolia” eventually slows down and allows its characters to intersect, both tangentially and deeply, but some things remain constant, especially the energy, confidence and panache that mark Anderson’s directing style. Even when we have no clear idea where he’s heading, we’re more than happy to take the trip with him.
Which is a good thing because, inevitably, some of “Magnolia’s” characters are more interesting than others. And the dark-night-of-the-soul nervous breakdowns/screaming fits all of them seem to be having simultaneously leads to a level of nonstop emotional intensity that borders on the exhausting.
If there is anything else that unites “Magnolia’s” characters it’s that almost all of them have some kind of connection to television. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), for instance, is a wealthy television producer, but now he’s dying of cancer and his much younger wife, Linda (Moore), and his nurse Phil Parma (Hoffman) are pursuing different roads in trying to make his last hours as he’d want them to be.
Game show host Jimmy Gator (Hall) has been on TV for a long time--12,000 hours over 30 years by one count--but now he’s dying as well and wants to reconcile with his angry daughter Claudia (Melora Walters).
Heavily into meaningless sex and intense drug use, Claudia refuses, but one of “Magnolia’s” more genial coincidences brings her into contact with LAPD Officer Jim Kurring (Reilly, excellent as always), a decent if awkward policeman, deeply religious and on the square, who likes his job because of the chances it gives him to right the world’s wrongs.
Jimmy Gator is currently employed hosting a show called “What Do Kids Know?,” in which a panel of adults competes with a group of youngsters. Smartest of the kids, in fact the smartest person on the whole show, is young Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), who finds that being brilliant does strange things to his relationship with his dad.
“What Do Kids Know?,” as it happens, has been on the air a long time, and Macy plays a former champion, perennially known as “Quiz Kid Donnie Smith,” who has difficulty getting his adult life in order. One of “Magnolia’s” most amusing scenes has Donnie trying to convince Solomon Solomon (Alfred Molina) and Avi Solomon (Miguel Perez) of Solomon Electronics that they shouldn’t fire him for terminal ineptitude.
Easily the most dynamic person on the small screen (and, as played by Cruise, on the large as well) is the wonderfully named Frank T.J. Mackey, a television motivational speaker with a most peculiar calling. Handsome, cocky, with a magnetic line of gab, Mackey is the ultimate male chauvinist with a phone number that says it all: 1-877-TAME HER. Preaching and teaching a profanity-laced philosophy of penile supremacy he calls “Seduce and Destroy,” Mackey gives Cruise the chance to cut loose by doing amusing riffs on his charismatic superstar image. It’s great fun, expertly written and performed, and all the more enjoyable because the self-parody element is unexpected.
Exciting as “Magnolia” can be to watch, it wouldn’t be fair to the writer-director and his considerable potential to call it completely successful. Some of the film’s emotional payoffs are predictable and less than profound, some revelations are not that revealing, and we don’t connect with all of “Magnolia’s” characters as much as might be hoped. Still, it’s an impressive piece of work with some fine acting that makes holding our interest for three-plus hours seem easy. Maybe, for someone as talented as Paul Thomas Anderson, it is.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language, drug use, sexuality and some violence. Times guidelines: extremely adult themes.
Jeremy Blackman: Stanley Spector
Tom Cruise: Frank T.J. Mackey
Melinda Dillon: Rose Gator
Philip Baker Hall: Jimmy Gator
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Phil Parma
William H. Macy: Donnie Smith
Julianne Moore: Linda Partridge
John C. Reilly: Jim Kurring
Jason Robards: Earl Partridge
Melora Walters: Claudia Gator
A Joanne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Co. production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Paul Thomas Anderson. Producer Joanne Sellar. Executive producers Michael De Luca, Lynn Harris. Screenplay Paul Thomas Anderson. Cinematographer Robert Elswit. Editor Dylan Tichenor. Costumes Mark Bridges. Music Jon Brion. Songs by Aimee Mann. Production design William Arnold, Mark Bridges. Art director David Nakabayashi. Set decorator Chris Spellman. Running time: 3 hours, 8 minutes.
In limited release.