Magnolia: Meet the Miserables

THINGS FALL DOWN. PEOPLE LOOK UP. AND WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS. 

After the success of Boogie Nights (1997), director Paul Thomas Anderson found himself in a very fortunate position and thought hard about how to take advantage. He started writing what was supposed to be a small and intimate movie, but it blossomed and turned into an epic with several intersecting storylines. Much like he had found a great part for Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, he created something special for Tom Cruise, who had reportedly loved Anderson’s breakthrough film. He ended up getting an Oscar nomination, but Cruise is far from the only talent worth watching in this sprawling cast.

The story takes place in the San Fernando Valley and we meet a great number of characters. There’s a former game show producer, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who’s dying of cancer and asks his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to track down his son. That would be Frank T.J. Mackey (Cruise) who’s built a career as a misogynistic motivational speaker who teaches men how to dominate in their relationship with women. We also meet Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the host of the game show, who also has cancer and is now trying to mend fences with his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), but she’s addicted to cocaine and not willing to forgive him for what he’s done.

There’s also a cop (John C. Reilly) who is called to Claudia’s apartment after a disturbance and is immediately attracted to this eccentric woman…

Not a happy bunch of people
There are many other characters; one of my favorites is William H. Macy as a former game show contestant who became a sensation as a kid, but his life is miserable now and he desperately tries to get the attention of a hunky bartender that he’s pathetically fallen in love with. This is not a happy bunch of people; everybody’s misery is revealed as we get to know them. Anderson deftly guides us through this very personal epic and keeps it entertaining in spite of all the heartache, maintaining a quick pace and offering little cliffhangers before shifting our attention to another character’s story.

After a while, a few themes help us connect these people to an even greater degree than the fact that their lives intersect. This is a film that deals with loneliness and regret; Robards in particular has a great speech about dying and bitterly regretting things about how he’s lived his life… but the lesson is not to fear regret, but how to use that energy and channeling it into something else. Above all, Anderson is interested in depicting the sins of bad fathers, the ones who are absent, cruel or abusive. The psychology may be fairly simple, but it’s still very rewarding, even gripping at times. Cruise has the showiest part of the movie as the immensely unlikable macho star. But Reilly also delivers a great, touching performance as the cop whose loneliness affects his judgment at work.

Another performer in the film is Aimee Mann, whose original songs dominate the soundtrack. She leaves a personal mark on the movie, especially as one sequence ends with several characters singing part of her song ”Wise Up”. Could have been awkward, but Anderson makes it happen in an emotionally resonant way.

Another idea that might have become simply embarrassing is the symbolic sequence where it suddenly starts raining frogs. Right from the start, Magnolia makes it clear that it’s also a movie about unexplained, strange events. You can read a lot into this sequence, as well as the meaning of the film’s title, and not get a definitive answer. You’ll just have to decide for yourself if you accept this or if Anderson’s approach leaves you cold.

Magnolia 1999-U.S. 188 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, JoAnne Sellar. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Music: Jon Brion. Songs: Aimee Mann (”Save Me”). Cast: Tom Cruise (Frank T.J. Mackey), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), John C. Reilly (Jim Kurring), Jason Robards (Earl Partridge), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters… William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Luis Gúzman, Alfred Molina, Michael Murphy, Felicity Huffman, Thomas Jane.

Trivia: Robard’s last film. George C. Scott was allegedly considered for a role.

Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor (Cruise). Berlin: Golden Bear.

Last word: “The point was that I wanted to shed myself of everything that was happening around ‘Boogie Nights’. And I started to write and well, it kept blossoming. And I got to the point where still it’s a very intimate movie, but I realised I had so many actors I wanted to write for that the form started to come more from them. Then I thought it would be really interesting to put this epic spin on topics that don’t necessarily get the epic treatment, which is usually reserved for war movies or political topics. But the things that I know as big and emotional are these real intimate everyday moments, like losing your car keys, for example. You could start with something like that and go anywhere.” (Anderson, The Guardian)

 

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