Henry Gibson and William H. Macy in 1999's "Magnolia".

Magnolia September 9, 2015 

Whereas Robert Altman liked to root his massive ensemble films in dirt-on-the-ground reality and an all-too savage brand of irony, Paul Thomas Anderson, his late-‘90s disciple, favors a more slow-burning, cunning filmmaking style. It involves a front of black comedy that slowly reveals itself to be consuming melodrama in a fashion only comparable to the opening of a Russian doll.  His breakthrough, Boogie Nights, introduced itself as a porn industry satire, but, unexpectedly, decided to rip its mask off during its second act to confess a true identity of tragedy.  Magnolia, his third feature, greets us with a playful documentary about the nature of coincidence only to suddenly submerge us in a labyrinth of dying tycoons, charming misogynists, boorish housewives, bumbling cops, sensitive nurses, and repressed child celebrities, all set to the tune of Aimee Mann and eccentric weather patterns.


To compare it to Short Cuts or Nashville would be a mistake only because Magnolia doesn’t share the same spirit — similar are their massive ensembles, the way they pull you into the jagged lives of jagged people and never allows your interest to cease.  But where Short Cuts and Nashville dared to see the humor in everyday hardships, Magnolia is a deluge of emotional catharsis kept bottled for decades prior to its events and left to explode for the viewer to ingest.  Its humorous flavors are left out only for the darkest of people to snicker at — even the comedy reeks of contrition.  The aforementioned documentary gives us an understanding that the film’s characters are all ingeniously connected, whether they share a mutual friend or just happen to unknowingly pass the other by on the street. But where the documentary is whimsical, Magnolia goes deeper.  It’s a daisy chain of various shades of melancholy.


Covering a 24-hour period in Los Angeles, Magnolia depicts the final few hours of former TV giant Earl Partridge’s (Jason Robards) life — dying of cancer and confined to his bed, he confesses to his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that his biggest regret still haunts him.  As a young man, he left his sick wife in the care of his teenaged son, while he, without a care in the world, continued on a path of womanizing as the life he left behind suffered immensely.  His son, Frank (Tom Cruise), has grown into a misogynist who promotes Seduce and Destroy, a step-by-step guide for the sadistic lonely heart who wishes to have a one night fling with a looker and dump her the next day.


A similarly doomed television great, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), is facing his last days as a game show host, not quite taking his final breaths but close to completely collapsing in the headlights of the irrepressible media.  The world sees him as a faraway father figure, but his personal life suggests anything but.  His estranged daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), has spiraled into a cataclysm of cocaine addiction.  His wife (Melinda Dillon), completely oblivious, doesn’t realize that her husband has been unfaithful throughout their marriage.


On coinciding paths of destruction are Earl’s wife (Julianne Moore), who married him for the money but is beginning to realize that she actually loves the man and is hopelessly depressed by his illness, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a past-dwelling child prodigy/game show champion who believes he will win the love of a metalmouthed bartender if he gets braces too, and Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a kid in the same shoes as the young Donnie who wants to be viewed as a person rather than a weirdo moppet with a lot of facts brimming in his young head.  


In Magnolia, Anderson’s takes risk after risk after risk, whether his uninhibitedness is represented by scenes like the one where the leading characters all simultaneously sing to Aimee Mann staple “Wise Up” or the finale that sees frogs (yes, frogs) rain from the sky like an all too literal alternative to the metaphorical torrent of cats and dogs.  But Magnolia is more than just risk-taking — it’s audacious filmmaking that pays in its every step.  It, at three hours, surprisingly doesn’t require a great deal of patience.  It’s magnetic from start to finish — these characters, so fucked up and in such need of an escape from this hell called life, are impossible not to become obsessed with.


Take Linda Patridge (Moore), who was fine being a trophy wife for a while, who was fine sneaking around while pretending to love her husband, and who was fine marrying an old rich guy for the sake of comfort.  But her past mistakes haunt her more than ever as she begins to understand that her materialism, at one point, paused in favor of realness.  She can only express herself in vulgarities, spitting out a hard-edged “fuck” between every word. In one scene, she has a meltdown in front of a pharmacist simply because he asks her why she’s purchasing so much medication.      


Or take Frank Mackey, who was abandoned by his father as a child and takes out all his anger on women, the very same gender who stuck by him during his developing years.  He’s been so harshly shaped by his hate that he can hardly understand just what a monster he’s become — he’s only concerned with making himself “happy,” hardly affected when he crushes the emotions of a different soul.  In the break between one of his Seduce and Destroy seminars, he is interviewed by a television reporter (April Grace) who asks him of his past, wondering aloud if his mother is supportive of his reprehensible lifestyle.  He laughs, acting as though his mother never stopped supporting him, getting serious when he sighs that his father passed on years ago.  But the reality is, in fact, the opposite.  When the reporter confronts his dishonesty — she did her research and discovered the connection between Frank and his famous father — he sits in silence, refusing to answer any further questions. He is so numbed by the events that made him the man he is today that a suggestion of those dark times leaves him completely defenseless.  He is, once again, put into the shoes of a helpless child at the mercy of a careless father.  After he is contacted by Earl’s nurse, he hesitantly agrees to go visit the man just so he can tell him how much he hates his guts before he takes his final breath.


While the most fascinating characters in Magnolia are the ones at the biggest crossroads in their lives, the most touching are Officer Jim (John C. Reilly) and Donnie Smith, both of whom have plenty of love to give but feel hopeless at every turn.  Jim knows that he’s the least talented policeman in Los Angeles, and, despite his good nature, is haunted by it.  Donnie knows that he’s a has-been more likely a never-was, but he clings to his long ago fame because it’s all he has left in his awful life — when he falls in love with the idea of the muscular bartender of his favorite tavern, his braces idea is pathetic but understandable.  He wants to fight for something he believes in, to start a new chapter in his life even if starting that new chapter is closer to impossible than plausible.  Their lives are transformed when Jim meets Claudia for the first time — her apartment’s cranked music and unpredictable behavior leads to a disturbance call — and when Donnie attempts to rob his work safe and realizes that it’s perfectly acceptable to look at life from a new perspective without the love angle. Jim sees potential in Claudia’s damaged frame, not willing to let her scarred interior, and drug-addicted exterior, get the best of her; Donnie sees potential in living for the future instead of the past.


Most significantly, Magnolia isn’t just a film about circumstance, about coincidence — it’s also about the meaning of life, about what it takes to recover from personal turmoil, what it takes to find a reason to live in a lost world.  Only 28 during production, Anderson displays a talent far more perceptive than the majority of his peers.  He takes the good and the bad, throws them at a wall, and studies their behavior with a conviction rarely held.  He insists on revealing monologues, insistent music, and low-key eccentricity. And for all its imperfections, Magnolia is one of the greatest films of the 1990s. A+