Magnolia is a film with a reputation of a very ambitious plot, a long running time, and an ensemble cast of characters whose lives are all connected. The main thing that has inhibited my desire to finally catch up with this Paul Thomas Anderson feature is the intimidating running time (as it has many). However, a few nights ago, I decided it's about time I finish up my favorite director's filmography, starting with Magnolia.
Magnolia opens with a sequence that suggests that life is influenced by forces other than mere chance. This introduces the theme of coincidence that is at the forefront of your mind upon beginning the journey that is Magnolia. However, I would argue that this theme is just one element to this film, while the themes of forgiveness, loss, and just emotion in general are the most significant.
The most amazing thing PTA has accomplished with this film is that there are roughly nine central characters in this intricate ensemble story and every single one is compelling. There is Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a womanizing television guru who uses his "Seduce & Destroy" tactics to teach men to seduce and control women. Frank's estranged father is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a former producer of the game show What Do Kids Know?, who is on his deathbed, dying of cancer. Earl is married to a much younger woman, Linda (Julianne Moore), who is struggling with the guilt of marrying Earl for his money, only to grow to actually care for the man as he is dying. Earl struggles with regret in his last moments, enlisting his nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to aid in contacting his son.
The host of What Do Kids Know?, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), is also dying of cancer. He is trying to rekindle his broken relationship with his daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), a struggling drug addict. However, when he confronts her with his illness, she reacts only with screaming for him to leave. The nervous and somewhat naive LAPD officer (John C. Reilly) who shows up due to Claudia's loud music and screaming is unaware of Claudia's obvious drug problems and is lovestruck.
Also, there is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a young boy genius who is a contestant on Jimmy's show. He is close to reaching a record for longest run on the quiz show, but this is jeopardized when he wets himself on stage due to one of the show's assistants not allowing him to go to the restroom during a commercial break. Parallel to Stanley is "Quiz Kid" Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a middle-aged man fallen on hard times, product of his young stardom and mistreatment by his parents, much like we see from Stanley's father.
These complex characters and their intertwined lives make up the plot of Magnolia. However, the most significant moments of this film are not instances when we are amazed at how their lives connect, rather than how relatable and true their experiences are. Most of these characters are experiencing struggles in one way or another. Frank and Claudia are struggling to confront or forgive their fathers due to how their lives and personalities have been affected through the abuse/abandonment by them, while Earl and Jimmy who are now, faced with death, experiencing regret for the awful things each has done in his life. The moments with these characters facing these issues are intimate in a way I've yet to experience in a film with so many characters.
There is a point in this film, when suddenly everything begins to feel quite different. This happens around the time that Frank is asked a more personal and revealing question about his childhood during his interview. This moment is when we start to view Frank as more of a human and less of an ironic, hilarious character. The still I chose from the film as the title image of this review is also this very moment. This interview scene is intercut with many more emotional sequences with the other characters that I will refrain from spoiling, but Magnolia maintains this high level of emotional complexity for the remainder of the film.
Two of the most memorable sequences of Magnolia just so happen to also be the most polarizing. One of these moments is certainly unexpected, so I will avoid ruining your inevitably surreal experience. However, I will say that in this moment, something very "different" happens that made me briefly question PTA's intention, but for some inexplicable reason, it works. The other scene that seems to be a problem for "some people" (by "some people" I mean Kevin Smith) is when PTA cuts between all of the major characters in the film singing Aimee Mann's "Wise up." When writing Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson said that he was highly influenced by the music of Aimee Mann. It's no surprise that a majority of the soundtrack consist of her music, including the oscar-nominated original song, "Save Me," that she wrote for the film. This is a beautiful moment and one of my absolute favorite scenes of the film. Mann's "Wise Up" is a song about coming to terms with reality, and this is a perfect reflection of what is happening with the characters at this time, as they are each coming to terms with things in their lives. The song also has a sweet melody that directly contrasts with the song's almost harsh lyrics, much like PTA's beautiful looking film, contrasts with the often dark, emotional moments.
PTA is a director with a filmography that reflects his high level of skill and craft and how he has perfected his style over time. However, I don't believe he has ever been more ambitious than he is here with Magnolia. I have only experienced the film twice so far, but each watch was quite rewarding and I find myself thinking of it often. I often hear about how big and grand this film is (which it is), but I believe what really "sticks" is the individual moments that hit you on such a personal level. Magnolia is about FEELING. Magnolia is about EXPERIENCING. Magnolia is everything I want and need a film to be.