Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Capturing the entirety of the human experience is an ambitious goal, one that many filmmakers never really feel up to tackling.  Paul Thomas Anderson thinks its third feature material.  Let’s face it though, the movies are better when the focus is narrowed.

That’s not to say Magnolia is not a beautiful, often breathtaking piece of work.  It is, in fact, a blueprint of sorts of the new decade of filmmaking that was to follow in the year 2000.  The seemingly unrelated yet interwoven storylines of films like Traffic, Babel or Crash meet the bizarreness of network television polluting Requiem for a Dream.  Bookending the film is the snarky know-it-all narrator you may know from Woody Allen films.

Biblical themes run through Magnolia as well, though not in a way that is flattering or preachy.  More impressive, though, is the bible of cinematic knowledge at Anderson’s disposal.  He directs the living hell out of this movie with a style writ from the annals of American film yet somehow distinct.   He throws everything at you here-  false prophets (Tom Cruise), gold diggers (Julianne Moore), former child stars (Willam H. Macy).  There are more stories too, among them that of the caring nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of the dying patriarch (Jason Robards), a dying game show host (Philip Baker Hall) and a young contestant on that show (Jeremy Blackman), and a love story between a junkie (Melora Walters) and a cop (John C. Reilly).  Together, you’ve got a veritable smorgasbord of narrative and character types.

Crash was a kind of mainstreaming of this concept; a Best Picture winner that large American audiences felt good getting behind because of the social message presented with volatile yet controlled bursts of emotion.  Magnolia runs rampant with narrative concept within its three hours, forcing the audience to make a connection instead of forcing a connection.

To Anderson’s credit, all of the characters in Magnolia are at least interesting, something you didn’t get in other movies with this concept.  The actors are all perfect, too.  William H. Macy evokes tragedy in pools of emotion as Donnie Smith, a sad gay man who was once a champion on a game show as a kid and is now trying to get a bartender at some dive to fall in love with him.  Tom Cruise is repulsive in all the right ways as Frank Mackey, a misogynist with a 10-step program to get assholes laid.  It’s perhaps the riskiest performance of Cruise’s career, and he nails it.

Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman also give memorable turns, but the smaller names in Magnolia also stick out.  Jeremy Blackman is terrific as the young prodigy plowing his otherwise dimwitted team to victory on a game show.  Melora Walters is also great as a junkie trying desperately to hold on to some imitation of life.  Jason Robards gives perhaps the film’s saddest performance, fully embodying a dying old man looking back at his life with regret and unbearable sadness.

Where Magnolia starts to hit a few problems is with finding some sort of thematic undercurrent.  In the end, it is simply a mosaic of lives and revelations on what may be the last day of humanity.   The point to Magnolia may be that there is no point at all, as the cast demonstrates in a love-it-or-hate-it cast music number to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.”

“It’s not what you thought when you first began it,” the song says, and from here on out is where Magnolia lost some critics by embodying that lyric.  The subtlety Anderson favors up until this point is virtually thrown out the window in favor of an attempted thematic beat-down.  Whether he is successful or not depends on whether you can follow him through the rabbit hole to a world of raining frogs and perdition.

The characters of Magnolia need their solace and protection in this San Fernando Valley of California darkness, whether it be a gun, drugs, or an idiotic self-help seminar.  They’ll all lose their safety net and find themselves, which is the only big commonality all of these characters share.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a born director, as his later work in There Will Be Blood showed.  That film gave him big ideas to go with his sweeping images.  Viewed now, Magnolia seems to be a promise of greatness to come, although it’s still somewhat of a twisted epic in its own right.  He seems to know with the bombardment of technique that this didn’t quite have the stand-alone thematic blood, but he’s also saying, “Don’t worry, someday there will be.”

Grade: A-

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