Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Great Films: Magnolia (1999)

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

It's hard to fit P.T. Anderson into any sort of box. Every time you think you've gotten a hold on him, he squirms away and does something completely different. His first film, Hard Eight, was a modest movie with tremendous performances. Boogie Nights was a magnum opus--and sort of a pornographic reworking of Goodfellas. He worked with Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, and crafted a modestly-scaled, but beautiful romance, and then waited another five years before re-emerging with Daniel Day-Lewis in the deliciously disturbed, monstrously epic There Will Be Blood. In the middle of those four movies, there was one movie that was more ambitious and more spectacular than all of them. That film is Magnolia.

The story of how Anderson wrote Magnolia is interesting in itself. At first, he has said that the entire screenplay was bred from one line of an Aimee Mann song ("Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?". Yeah, that line), and then he said that the majority of his writing came when he was staying at a cabin owned by William H. Macy, terrified of going outside because of the danger of poisonous snakes. Whatever Anderson's muse may be, the result was something that nobody had ever seen before. Stories intertwined strangely, but why? Because of fate? Magnolia is kind of smarmy in that way, constantly winking at you while sit befuddled trying to figure out what it all means.

Nine characters living in San Fernando Valley, California all have their share of heartbreak, regret, depression, and more regret. Things are not looking up for any of them. There is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards in one of his best and final performances) who is dying of cancer, and his much younger trophy wife Linda (Julianne Moore) who fears he will die without realizing that she actually does love him. Earl's full-time nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is coaxed into calling Earl's estranged son Jack, who has now become a infomercial guru, guiding men in their efforts to pick up women, named Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise).

Earl is the former producer of a television game show, "What Do Kids Know?". The show is still a hit, and it's host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is also dying of cancer, and hopes to patch up a shoddy relationship with his junkie daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). The show's success is soaring with the help of pre-teen whiz kid Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), whose intellect excels past most adults. A former whiz kid superstar Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is now middle-aged and is struggling with his waning celebrity, and hopes robbing his place of employment will help him woo the love of his life. Unfortunately, his mid-level crime doesn't get past Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who is a mediocre cop, but hopes that his run-in Claudia will be more than a chance happening.

There are even more characters in this film to discuss, including Stanley's vain, overbearing father Rick (Michael Bowen), a feisty reporter trying to pry the truth from Frank named Gwenovier (April Grace) and Jimmy's sense-of-worth wife Rose (Melinda Dillon). But it's those nine characters that I mentioned before that really hold most of the film's screen time. Their stories intertwine momentarily, but every single one of them is given their moment of ultimate grace. Sure, the film's running time--188 minutes--may seem to be really reaching to some, but its almost perfect for what Anderson is trying to achieve. Like all great films, Magnolia seems like it isn't long enough.

What's truly astonishing about Magnolia is its fearless bravura. It's circular plot spins around and around, and at times, we're convinced the film is about death, at other moments we're convinced its about life and love, and surely there are moments where the film's main inspiration seems to be fate. I'm not going to decide what Magnolia is actually about--that's a rather dubious thing to do--but the fact that it skirts around all of these themes yet never seems off-kilter or pretentious is quite impressive. Add to that, that P.T. Anderson also has the audacity to be innovative visually, maximizing the work of cinematographer Robert Elswit, capturing these characters in titillating close-ups, pans, and tracking shots that keep the movie in constant movement.

Magnolia has always been a misconceived film, many thinking that the film flounders in its ambition. Many will question certain sequences: one being all of the characters breaking into song to sing Aimee Mann's "Wise Up"; but the most dissected sequence in Magnolia is easily the movie's climax in which the city is brought to a standstill when frogs begin raining from the sky. The situation causes chaos, but the entire film has been chaos. One of the movies catchphrases is "Strange things happen all the time", and making frogs fall from the sky certainly stretches the audience's trust, but Anderson's ambition was always fearless.

And that cast. Oh my goodness, that cast. Cruise, Hall, and Reilly all give career-defining work, while Moore, Robards, and Macy are exceptional as well. With everyone in the film being as droll and depressed as they are, you'd think their accumulated sadness will get in the way of each other and become too much. It never does. They all create enough space and impact that it creates one of the greatest movie acting ensembles I have ever seen in films. Cruise went on to an Academy Award nomination (much like Josh Brolin recently getting the nom for ALL of the supporting players in Milk), and surely it must be difficult to single out any of these performances for recognition.

Magnolia is such a fine film, it is sometimes forgotten because of its zeal. Populist opinion seems to be that Anderson has "matured" since Magnolia, but as his filmmaking has become more and more anarchic and haphazard, it becomes obvious that Magnolia was only the beginning. Anderson has said--albeit a long time ago--that he thinks he will never make a film as good as Magnolia. I'd like to think that Anderson will always see it as a challenge, as if to say that he will always strive to make films as good. So far, I don't think Anderson has ever made a bad film, but Magnolia is truly the city on a hill. It is one of the beacons of 1990's filmmaking, up there with Fargo and Schindler's List.


Drew said...

What a perfect review. This, and There Will Be Blood, are two of my favourite films ever, and I hope Paul Thomas Anderson keeps making masterpiece after masterpiece.

Everything about it is so original and wonderful, like the light and fun prologue about ironic coincidence, the Aimee Mann score including the "Wise Up" segment, and the cathartic rain of frogs. Even that beautiful last shot where Melora Walters starts to smile.

James Colon said...

Totally agree. I understand WHY people would be turned off by this movie, but everything in MAGNOLIA that throws people off totally reels me in. I can never get enough of it.