A faceless narrator ruminates on the nature of chance and fate by
telling of three different inexplicable occurrences through time. The
most interesting anecdote is one where a young man's attempt at a
suicidal fall is botched mid-plunge--when he ends up the victim of a
murder to which he was an accessory. The convoluted mechanics of this
strange--make that _freak_--occurrence are analyzed in exhaustive detail,
complete with a visual breakdown by telestrator. It's not exactly the
most obvious way to open any film about the anguished lives of a
cross-section of people in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, but in terms
of Paul Thomas Anderson's _Magnolia_, it is the perfect curtain- and
eyebrow-raiser for three hours of the director's astonishingly powerful
and audacious vision.
Anderson follows that bold prologue with an introductory sequence that
can only be described as being cinematically alive. As a TV blares the
ridiculously macho propaganda of male self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey
(Tom Cruise), one by one we're introduced to the characters, storylines,
and relationships that intertwine over one eventful 24-hour period
detailed in the film. Cancer-stricken television producer Earl Partridge
(Jason Robards) is on his deathbed, being tended to by his nurse, Phil
Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as his much younger trophy wife, Linda
(Julianne Moore) searches in vain for a way to cope. Elsewhere in the
Valley is another terminal cancer victim, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker
Hall), who hasn't yet let his estranged, drug-addicted daughter Claudia
(Melora Walters) know about his condition. In the meantime, he continues
his long-running hosting duties on the popular kids-versus-adults quiz
show _What_Do_Kids_Know?_, whose current champion is child genius Stanley
Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Serving as a counterpoint to Stanley's
progression is the downward slide of Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a
former champion of the same show back in the '60s. Patrolling the Valley
streets while talking to an invisible partner is Officer Jim Kurring
(John C. Reilly).
This highly kinetic sequence, fueled by energized editing and camera
work, is ultimately held together by the song that plays in the
background, a tune that succinctly sums up the main feeling of the
characters and the film itself: Aimee Mann's cover of "One"--as in, "one
is the loneliest number." Isolation is the primary theme of _Magnolia_,
and the overwhelming pain that comes with the state its primary mood; as
the characters each seek out connection and comfort, Anderson masterfully
uses music to express that which is neither seen nor spoken. For a
non-musical film, _Magnolia_ is highly dependent on the music; there is
nary a moment where either a song (usually by Mann, contributed seven to
the film) or Jon Brion's instrumental score is playing in the background.
Sometimes Anderson even has score and songs playing concurrently, and a
number of times the music takes the foreground and the dialogue recedes
into the background (most notably in the film's final scenes); both are
bold moves, and they prove to be highly effective in showing the urgency
of emotion that burns beneath the surface.
But no example of Anderson's use of music is as ingenius as in one
bound-to-be-discussed scene that occurs about two-thirds into the film.
As all the characters appear to be at their lowest, most uncertain point,
the action completely stops and each person, regardless of where they
are, sings along to Mann's somber "Wise Up." The tune is not playing on
anyone's stereo as source music; it simply plays on the film's
soundtrack, and everyone relates their pain through the song, whose
chorus goes, "It's not going to stop 'til you wise up." The idea sounds
ridiculous and almost overly cutesy on paper, but the scene sends chills
while watching it unfold onscreen. When the signature line is sung for
the final time, with the altered lyric "It's not going to stop, so just
_give_up_"--it packs a stunning wallop.
Of course, such an experimental, for lack of a better term, "stunt"
would not work if the audience does not care for any of the characters.
While _Magnolia_ runs three hours, Anderson still has only so much screen
time to divide between its large canvas of players, and it's a testimony
to his writing and directing skill and the ability of the actors that
everyone comes across as a fully-realized human being. The cast is
absolutely flawless, with Cruise undoubtedly set to get the lion's share
of attention for his showy, likely-to-be-Oscar-nominated work. The
recognition would be well-deserved, but I found myself even more
impressed with others in the ensemble. Moore is particularly strong,
gradually revealing the tenderness that lies beneath her character's
shrewish bitterness; the moment where Linda is finally able to be honest
about her feelings to another and to herself is shattering. Walters and
Reilly are called on to navigate the film's central romantic thread, and
their oddball characters' pairing is at once comically eccentric and
genuinely endearing. Then there's the bound-to-be-unsung hero by the
name of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The role of loyal and nice nurse Phil is
far from the film's flashiest (not surprisingly, that distinction goes to
Cruise's), but it's one of those critical parts that, if done completely
wrong, could short-circuit the entire film. That Hoffman's work is
likely to go unrecognized says everything about the quality of his
The idea of the inexplicable--and Anderson's courageously go-for-broke
creative approach--comes to a head during the film's climax, when
something indeed beyond reason takes place, serving as a unifying force
between all the characters and plotlines. I will not give it away, but
the development not quite as out-of-left-field as some people suggest; it
is, in fact, very subtly foreshadowed throughout the course of the movie.
Nonetheless, it _is_ quite a jarring turn, but by that point I was
willing to go anywhere the boundlessly imaginative Anderson was leading.
That's the sign of a true film artist at work, and the proof is the
moving, magnificent masterwork that is _Magnolia_.