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No. 42: “Magnolia” (1999)

“I’ll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.”
~~Claudia Wilson Gator

Epic in length, ambition and raw acting talent, “Magnolia” is not an easy film to break down. This motion picture defies quick summary, and that’s not because of a convoluted plot or characters with mystifying or unknowable motivations. Stripped of the gut-churning, elegaic soundtrack (including Aimee Mann’s devastating, Oscar-nominated “Save Me”), “Magnolia” is film about the most mundane of things: people interacting with other people. Under Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, though, something so ordinary becomes extraordinary. Where other directors might see banality, he sees a life-affirming symphony of emotion.

In making “Magnolia,” Anderson had a rare opportunity for creative control. He decided to seize that opportunity — a wise move considering that a motion picture this theatrical about plain people might not have gotten made any other way. Making something like “Magnolia” involves a gigantic leap of faith that places an equally gigantic amount of trust in viewers. Could they see beauty in two lonely ne’er-do-wells (John C. Reilly, Melora Walters) bonding over a terrible cup of coffee? Or be moved to tears by the plight of a loser (William H. Macy) who lives so deep in the past he can’t see what’s ahead of him? It’s a risk few directors would take; that’s not Anderon’s way, however, and thank God for that. Anyone with a touch of patience and a willingness to accept coincidences will find much to love about “Magnolia,” which at its core is a meditation on the emotions we feel every day, many times a day: anger, sadness, pain, hope, lust, love, betrayal, jealousy and so much more. It is one of the best films ever made about the human condition.

One of the elements to love about “Magnolia” — not shocking given Anderson’s ability to assemble winning ensemble casts — is the performances. Anderson does not write any part, down to a dying man’s nurse, as one-dimensional. There are unfathomable depths to every character, and every actor finds those depths. Because “Magnolia” relies on the everyone-is-connected-somehow theme, there are no true main characters and no stories that preside over all others. Dying patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), however, do stand at the middle. Earl pleads with his caretaker Phil (Hoffman) to find Frank (Tom Cruise, who hits a career high), the son Earl abandoned years ago. Frank, a manipulative slimeball who’s made a career of selling his womanizing strategies to regular guys, wants nothing to do with Earl. He also wants nothing to do with Earl’s trophy wife Linda (a wrenching Julianne Moore), who sublimates her guilt with any sedative she can find. Jimmy’s life is approaching its expiration date, and he cannot reconcile with his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a cokehead. An inept, kind-hearted cop named Jim (John C. Reilly, a sweetly floundering Everyman) falls for Claudia when her neighbors file a noise complaint against her. Claudia’s father is on the verge of losing the thing that means most to him in the world: his successful game show “What Do Kids Know?” One of the young stars is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), whose father is pushing the boy right up to the breaking point. Donnie Smith (Macy in top comic-tragic form), former child star of the show, watches Stanley with jealous, knowing eyes. Donnie understands the dangers of peaking so young, and his anguish is plaintive: “I do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

Macy touches on one of the more important prevailing themes — and a universal human problem — in “Magnolia” with these two sentences of dialogue. These people, all bumbling and stumbling through life, have emotions too big to stuff down. Mann’s aching, weary voice perfectly underscores this plight, and Anderson’s tracking shot in the quiz show sequence builds the tension to uncomfortable levels. Like the characters in “Magnolia,” we pray for sweet release. When release comes, we are not prepared and we do not understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe this, Stanley would say, is something that happens.

22 Responses

  1. To me, this is PTA’s masterpiece. It’s criminally underrated. My heart breaks for William H. Macy every time I watch it.

    Thanks for a great post up on a movie that just doesn’t get enough love!

  2. Excellent read! PT is one of our most gifted filmmakers, to be sure. This is my kind of film and you are right — he turns the ordinary into the extraordinary and lets the human relationships transform and speak for themselves. This, in my opinion, is an odd masterpiece (which makes 2 for PT with TWBB). Performances all around are insanely good and the soundtrack, stellar — as you suggest. I can watch this film anytime. It is riveting, haunting, moving, though I can surely see how many would hate it.

  3. I think I’ve said it before, I like the various parts of this film individually but I don’t like it all together as a whole. Either way, it’s still one of the seven best films of 1999 and I especially love Julianne Moore’s performance.

  4. Tom Cruise should’ve gotten an Oscar for TJ Mackay. That he could dig into his soul and pour out that performance is nothing short of astounding.

  5. And as the good book says, we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.

  6. @ C-C — Having seen all his films now, I’m inclined to agree with you. It may be one of the best ensemble casts on record … barring “Boogie Nights” or “Inception.”

    @ Peter — I liked Mann before, but after seeing “Magnolia” I immediately bought the soundtrack. The oddness appealed to me, especially the conclusion.

    @ Fitz — I’m not a member of the Tom Cruise Fan Club, but he truly knocked it outta the park with Frank. That’s a character who runs the gamut of emotions.

    @ PFS — That’s my third favorite quote from the movie.

  7. You need to put “Sydney” (“Hard Eight”) in your queue.

  8. Beautiful film, yeah. The only place I can stand Tom Cruise, even though he approaches the misogny with a bit too much fervor (in my opinion).

    • Do ya think he’s, you know, compensating for something? (Sorry, I just saw that Tom-Cruise-in-the-closet episode of “South Park” last night.)

  9. I think it is the ensemble that makes this, both in the cast and in the development of the characters. Most ensemble films have a weak link or two, but this film provides strong, well-rounded character development throughout, quite a feat.

    Plus, this is one of the few films where I can stand to watch Tom Cruise.

  10. Good review M, though I must say I really despise this movie, and I disagree with your statement that the movie defies quick summary because I often summarize it as coincidences happen, bad shit in life happens, but we continue on anyway. Sure that is not very elegant, and it does ignore what happens in the movie, but that is Magnolia in a nut shell–at least to me. I hope we can still be friends 🙂

    • We can agree to disagree. (We already are of two minds about “T2,” if I remember.) But I think slapping the “bad shit happens” label on the film is an oversimplification. I suspect that if we got technical about it, there are thousands of films that fit into that category, but they are about more than just “shit happens; get over it.” Which is how I feel about “Magnolia.”

      • I agree I offered a very simple and simplistic summary of the movie, and I did enjoy the fact that it doesn’t seem to be saying that we have to “get over” the bad shit, but rather that we have to find a way to live with and through it–we must continue on no matter how difficult that is or how much we don’t want to. It has been years since I have tried to watch Magnolia (I’ve only seen it once in its entirety) so maybe now that I am older and (hopefully) more tolerant I will check it out again and my mind will be changed.
        And you are right we are of two minds about “T2” but only in the sense that I think the original “Terminator” is the better of the two, though I still think “T2” is a most excellent film.

  11. I have never seen this film. I’ve watched all the the director’s works except for ‘Magnolia.’ I’ll be watching it one of the these years…

  12. I LOVE this movie. There are so many incredible performances and the way the stories and characters are woven together is a beautiful masterpiece. This is still close to my favorite Cruise performance as well. He might get flack for being an uber douche, but movies like this prove he can act.

    • @ Edgar — This is one I’d categorize as A Film You Must See Before You Die. It is the most epic, sweeping film I’ve ever seen that’s about nothing more than what happens every day in people’s lives. Somehow with the acting and musical score and P.T. Anderson’s direction it’s just so heartbreakingly beautiful.

      @ Heather — “Magnolia” is one of the few films that I would call a “masterpiece.” It is not perfect, for sure, and there’s a glorious absence of subtlety, but I don’t care because the movie is so beautiful. There’s not one bad performance in the thing, and the way all the stories converge at the quiz show just had me gobsmacked. Also, any director who gets a performance that good from Tom Cruise gets a thumbs-up from me! 🙂

  13. ‘You know that scene they have in movies where the guy tries to get in touch with his long lost son? Well, this is that scene..’
    i dont think there’s another actor alive who could have delivered that line and not be met with laughter.
    Philip Seymour Almost As Good As Dustin Hoffman… i salute you
    great film, one that i always dread rewatching cos its heavy but once you watch a minute of it from any point you just get sucked in again. i really cant think of any film in the last 20 years that has the same number of great performances in it.
    and as everyone above quite rightly says, this is Cruise’s finest hour.

  14. […] family dynamics. ”Punch Drunk Love” had Barry and his seven wretched sisters; “Magnolia,” the twin stories of Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge, who slowly poisoned their marriages, their […]

  15. […] are shoutouts to “Gidget” and “Practical Magic” and that real chucklefest “Magnolia.” Read the post to find out who picked what, or click on the photo […]

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