Magnolia review by Tom Blain

Second Thoughts...

As I sip my unevenly mixed gin and tonic this evening, I recount events that occured no more than 3 1/2 years ago. I was college student eager to study the arts.... er film. There were a number of my friends who enjoyed the Arnold Swartzenegger films ("Oooohh...how about ERASER!?!?") or the Brukheimmer action-drama's ("Pearl Harbor can't possibly be worse than Armageddon!"), but my cup of tea was a little more Earl Grey. Always searching for something a little deeper than your Hollywood fairy tale, I eagerly awaited one of the most talked about movies of 1999: Magnolia. Director Paul Thomas Anderson laid down some serious credentials with the porno family flick Boogie Nights. What was more amazing: his camera work (Scorsese meets Altman some where between Nashville and Goodfellas) or the fact that he made Marky Mark look good without the Funky Bunch? I saw Magnolia then and I was mesmirized.

In July of 2003 I revisited Magnolia.

Magnolia boasts an all-star, ensemble cast of character actors as well as big names who all wanted to hone their craft with the newest kid on the block's latest masterpiece. At the top of the food chain is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) who is in the final stages of a terrible cancer bout. If the term Magnolia refers to the characters as pedals of a flower, Earl is the center than connects them all. His estranged son is played by Tom Cruise. Cruise plays the most enjoyable character, Frank "TJ" Mackey, a walking erection who instructs other men how to seduce women in a destructive manner. Earl is being taken care of by hospice nurse Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who becomes attatched to the old guy in that patient-nurse sort of way. Earl's young wife is played by Julianne Moore who is unable to deal with her guilt of only loving the old man as he knocks on deaths door. Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall) runs a gameshow produced by Earl Partridge called "What Do Kids Know?". Like Partridge has cancer, but unlike Partridge its in the earliest stage. Donnie "Quiz Kid" Smith is a confused young man who once competed on the show at the highest level, but now he finds it difficult to hold down a steady job. Stanley (Neil Flynn) is the next boy genius on the show attempting to break Donnie's old win-streak. Jimmy's daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) can't stand the site of her father and is snorting her weight in coke every morning. She goes out on a date with naive policeman Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) who is looked down upon by his peers; probably because he is a pushover/nice-guy.

For 3 hours, PT Anderson ties them together, crosses their pathes, and puts them through a whirlwind of emotions. Much like an Altman film (going back to Nashville or even the more recent Gosford Park), Anderson's goal is to hold the strings but let the actors do the weaving. They all jump into the role with enthusiasm that shows up on film everytime and thats exciting to see. That coupled with Anderson's eye behind the camera are just a few of the reasons I fell in love with this film in the theatre.

One problem, however, is that the characters created by Anderson are easy to loath. Whiners, complainers, criers, screamers, users, abusers, drama-queens, and overall just pathetic human beings. If you take a step back and look at each character, you will find maybe one or two that could hold a decent conversation. The rest are too self-absorbed or neurotic to even tell you the time of day. From a writing perspective, I am sure P.T. Anderson saw this as a challenge to encapsulate the problems and ails of each character whether it be in-your-face or subtle, and it was his pleasure to see each actor do such a specataculor job realizing his creation. But is it enjoyable to watch these schitzo's interact on screen? Do I enjoy seeing John C. Reilly pathetically court a tripped out pathetically, confused Melora Walter's? On one hand, yes, I appreciate the job each actor does, but are these scenes at all enjoyable? What about Julianne Moore on the verge of a nervous breakdown repeating the word "Fuck" over and over as if she is a little girl who doesn't know better? A lot of these people are completely despicable.

One thing I really liked about Magnolia was that it started off with a bang. The film sets the mood with introducing a few stories of chance and coincidence narrated by Ricky Jay. The first story done beautifully in silent black and white and shows how three men unknowingly rob a man who works within a building that shares all three of the robber's names. The robbers are then hung. Then there is the story of the pilot who accidentally picks up a scuba diving blackjack dealer in a lake to put out a forest fire. This is the same blackjack dealer that he had a run in with the night before. The weight of what he did grows and he shoots himself. Then there is the attempted suicide that turned into a homicide. I won't go into details as my fingers are getting dry just thinking of how to explain it.

These three stories are presented as "not just one of those things" and "not just a coincidence". The film is built up from the beginning and we begin to think "the next 2 1/2 hours are going to be filled with incredible chances and freak occurances, tying together dynamic characters in ways I would never realize." But when the credits roll, and we trace back our point of reference how do we tie it all together? What coincidences do we have to show that rival what happend at the beginning? Frogs falling from the ski ala Exodus 8:2? I know its in the Bible and all, and there are a number of "8" and "2" references in the film, but how does this tie into the three stories we started with? Do ALL of the characters tie together somehow? The answer is NO, some never meet (however if you like the 'kevin bacon game' you can tie them together). Does the juvenille rapper prophecize their fates? Does he even solve the murder with "Worm"? He mentions the lord raining down and what not, but how can we tie this to the dead guy in the closet? We can't unless I am missing something. Even if you can tie it together, what does it prove in the end and where is the amazing coincidence other than, their lives all suck, they live in LA, and they now have to squeegie frog off their glass?

The opening is a bit misleading as it leads us to believe that we will go through some crazy twist of a story that someone like David Mamet would create, but instead we get a biblical retaliation to a Los Angeles freakshow of emotional misfits. The more it grows on me, the more it grows moldy. I get the idea all of these points: 1) character driven drama, 2) coincidences drving people together, and 3) frogs falling from the ski hit P.T.'s head at the same time and he never stopped to think of whether throwing them all together in a 3 hour movie would work. Another thing that made me like this movie when I first saw it was searching for answers and clues to tie people and ideas together. The search for a meaning in an obscure film was half the fun. The more I look, the less meaning I see, and the more disappointed I grow. I will watch more of Paul Thomas Anderson's films because I think he really does have talent for not only directing but writing. However, at times he may not know when to hold back. Maybe his mistakes in Magnolia can be a lesson.




5 out of 10 Jackasses
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