Magnolia has obvious flaws… it’s over three hours when it shouldn’t be, some of its most compelling characters are forgotten about in the second half, and lands on a conclusion that is both heavy handed and opaque. The flaws of Magnolia would be tough to ignore if they weren’t in the service of a work so interesting.
Paul Thomas Anderson (or PT Anderson as he’s occasionally credited or PTA for people who are in so much of a hurry to finish writing that they can’t type three names) was fresh off a huge hit, Boogie Nights, when New Line told him he can make any kind of film he wants, carte blanche. He looks them in the eye and says “It’s going to be a three hour familial drama with nine leads set in the San Fernando Valley culminating in a storm of frogs.”
This was a once in a lifetime chance for PTA and he indulges in every eccentricity, including a musical number. The whole project should feel pretentious if it weren’t so heartfelt. Though much of it is big, Magnolia focuses its runtime on the micro: a cop loses his gun, a former child star needs new teeth, a current child star has to use the bathroom; yet the emotional stakes are white knuckle high. For a feature this length, Magnolia is an expert showcase in pacing. It accelerates and carries an action movie level of tension for 20 minute stretches then slows down into almost banality before speeding up again then dipping. It feels more like a song than an act based structure. Robert Elswit, the film’s DP, enhances the breathlessness through a series of manic tracking shots that span multiple rooms.
The whole ordeal feels heart-on-the-sleeve sincere, almost laughably so. Magnolia could have been a slog if not for the cast. As opposed to Boogie Nights, (where the ensemble exists as fun pop in’s around Dirk) Magnolia applies the same individual psychological studies of PTA’s later films to nine characters at once. Each member grounds literary dialogue in true human suffering. They also find depths of humor with no traces of irony. Anderson’s characters are all broken underneath shallow external defenses. Take Tom Cruise, in one of his best roles, as a men’s rights pickup artist who channels his grief for a deceased mother and non-relationship with father into misogynistic angst. His brass external shield falls when confronted by a journalist who sees him as is. Cruise’s charisma is used to make someone reprehensible into a tragic figure. I could focus the rest of this review praising the cast as they all deliver, particularly Melora Walters, Julianne Moore, and Jason Robards in his final film role. Most of their characters function similarly to Cruise’s Frank TJ Mackey, emotionally shattered but expected to keep a certain appearance due to society’s standards and their own self image.
Different story elements echo into each other and repeat (two instances dying fathers who abused their offspring and feel remorse). It’s all in service of the same theme, society’s treatment of children and their relationship with an indifferent predecessor. All of their pain manifests in different ways: drug addiction, desperate self harm or even more desperate attempts at self improvement. Despite the recurrences, very few of the leads actually get to interact with each other or anyone else for support. The only unity is when they all stop what they’re doing and sing along to a diegetic use of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” and the end when the supernatural forces that be rain frogs all over the Valley. The frogs affects range from a simple backdrop to death but this otherworldly occurrence alters all of their lives. There’s some larger magic at play here and Biblical connections are impossible to ignore but I think it’s simpler than that… as Stanley prophetically says “these things happen”.
After the frogs dry on the street, a narrator blatantly explains the film: he recaps the true story strange events from the film’s opening and acknowledges the preceding three hours as far fetched but only so much as real life. PTA reduces every interesting idea Magnolia presents to fate vs coincidence. It’s heavy handed in spite of the elegance that came before until the narrator shuts up and we’re confronted with film’s final image: a slow zoom on Melora Walters’ Claudia as she cries, cries then smiles. The ending is indicative of Magnolia as a whole, curtains of bombast that open on humanizing intimacy.