An epic mosaic of interrelated characters in search of love, forgiveness, and meaning in the San Fernando Valley.
‘Magnolia’ is undoubtedly Paul Thomas Anderson’s most ambitious picture, an epic ensemble piece that builds on the successes with the ensemble in ‘Boogie Nights’ to create something truly mesmerising. At its best, ‘Magnolia’ is almost operatic in nature, bringing contrasting scenes and situations together with music to create a thematic crescendo. Not everything works (a segment where many characters are singing the same song), but there’s such verve and audaciousness in the filmmaking that you can’t help but admire the ambition. The only film I’ve seen that feels similar in style is ‘Cloud Atlas’, one of the Wachowski siblings two great films, which also uses music to draw together different experiences, characters and locations.
At its basest level, ‘Magnolia’ is a film charting the experiences of several connected individuals across the space of one day in the San Fernando Valley. In the early stages, the individual characters and stories feel disparate, but throughout the course of the film it becomes clearer that the situations are related in one way or another, whether thematic or actual. The sheer skill in pulling all of this together is unbelievable with almost every link drawn together naturally, and I can only imagine how Anderson managed to even tackle this screenplay! The concluding sequence feels a little too ‘out there’ for me, even given how the film had gone before, but it feels like such a small part in a bigger picture that it doesn’t really matter (and subsequent research tells me that this can actually happen – well, you learn something new every day as they say!).
Perhaps more astonishing is how stunningly intimate the performances are for a film of such epic scope. From the biggest part down to the smallest, the actors give absolutely everything to imbue each and every character with such power. The cast is largely a holdover from ‘Boogie Nights’, with new additions such as Tom Cruise and Jason Robards (in his last screen performance) joining them. Cruise got an Oscar nomination for his performance as a self help guru for men trying to pick up women, and his transformation from a sexist jerk on the stage to the man being picked apart in a stunning interview is mesmerising, with Cruise selling the hell out of it.
I think the film is about a lot of things, but most of all I think it’s about actions and consequences, and the ripple effect that even the smallest action can have on many other people’s lives. This is shown through the relationships between fathers and sons, carers and patients, husbands and wives and mistresses, with the actions of each individual setting in motion a chain of events that can’t be stopped. Where did Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) get his animosity towards woman from? Why did Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) cheat on his wife? Why does Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) want out of Earl Partridge’s (Jason Robards) will? People’s behaviour and their outlooks on life are shaped by their experiences and on the actions of those surrounding them, and Anderson’s screenplay explores this in detail through his character’s pasts, their regrets and their hopes for the future.
It’s also about cycles and about the transient nature of fame and happiness. Producing a successful TV quiz show doesn’t stop Earl Partridge from getting cancer, nor does presenting the show prevent Jimmy Gator falling ill or cheating on his wife. The quiz show acts like the orbit that the film’s characters circle around, from William H. Macy’s former champion who can’t move on with his life, to the latest kid ‘star’ played by Jeremy Blackman, who can’t escape his father’s aggressive parenting. There’s something sweeping about the narrative, and in lesser hands a film such as this could get bogged down in coincidences, convoluted subplots and melodrama, but Anderson’s steady hand at the wheel brings all of these characters and moments together to create something truly wonderful, unashamedly melodramatic but ultimately moving and meaningful.
‘Magnolia’ is a relentless experience that never lets up, combining a screenplay of epic scope, stunningly intimate performances and a mesmerising soundtrack to create a multi layered and truly special piece of cinema. I can’t wait to watch it again.
Next up, following Anderson’s longest film comes his shortest, ‘Punch Drunk Love’, which I’m led to believe features one of Adam Sandler’s finest performances (which admittedly, would not be hard).
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Blackman, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Alfred Molina, William H. Macy, Melora Waters, Felicity Huffman, Thomas Jane, Melinda Dillon, Ricky Jay, Luis Guzman, Patton Oswalt and Philip Seymour Hoffman