Worth A Look: 18.65%
Just Average: 10.09%
Pretty Crappy: 4.28%
18 reviews, 219 user ratings
by Andrew Howe
In 1993 director Robert Altman released Short Cuts, a film based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. Featuring an ensemble cast of respected second-tier actors, it wove a number of disparate plot threads into a satisfying whole, chronicling the day-to-day lives of a variety of relatively “normal” suburbanites. Its primary theme was the breakdown in communication between the denizens of modern-day society, and the viewer was left to draw the inescapable conclusion that, regardless of our efforts to foster meaningful relationships, we are destined to travel through this world in a state of emotional isolation.Six years have passed since then, but if Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Magnolia is to be believed the passage of time has done little to improve the situation. Short Cuts danced on the edge of abyss, but Magnolia plunges us deep into the fires of Hell, and any hope of salvation is left stranded on the far side of the Styx. It is a dark, uncompromising film which is anything but cathartic, and it speaks of things which some may feel are best left unsaid, but few will be able to deny that it is a powerful, unsettling vision, and that alone makes it worthy of our attention.
"A lament for lost souls"
Magnolia features nine major characters, nine lives in varying states of disrepair. There’s T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a motivational guru who makes a living transforming downtrodden losers into barroom Casanovas; an old man (Jason Robards) searching for death-bed repentance after a lifetime of self-absorption, aided and abetted by his over-emotional male nurse (the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Prozac-chugging wife (Julianne Moore); a child prodigy (Jeremy Blackman) who provides a cheesy quiz show with its resident performing seal, and his seriously screwed-up middle-aged predecessor (William H. Macy, who makes Hoffman look like a recluse); the host of the aforementioned quiz show (Philip Baker Hall) and his drug-addled daughter (Melora Walters); and a cop named Jim who takes his job way too seriously (John C. Reilly).
Given the number of characters competing for screen time, it would have been impossible for Anderson to shoehorn a conventional three-act storyline into the three hours available. The film is therefore devoted to laying the souls of its protagonists bare over a single 24 hour period, and while each has their own story to tell the plot threads are interrelated to varying degrees. It’s a relatively low-key affair compared to Anderson’s previous effort, Boogie Nights, focussing on interpersonal conflict and meaningful conversations at the expense of sex, violence and suspense. Anyone looking for a fast-paced narrative may find it decidedly soporific, and the absence of a neat conclusion will alienate those who abhor loose ends.
On the other hand, if you can tune into its wavelength it is an involving and deeply affecting journey, for as a character study it succeeds admirably. Each of the characters is heir to several major-league unresolved problems, but the film takes care not to alienate the viewer from their plight. The issues are universal – fear of dying, fear of living, the lure of chemical relief and the sorrowful memory of opportunities squandered – and as a result there are few who will not identify with the suffering of these lost and weary souls.
If you believe the opening narrative, the theme of this film is that sometimes impossible things do happen, a concept which actually doesn’t seem to be explored in any particular depth (apart, that is, from a visually arresting climax which seeks to ram the point home with a jackhammer but which, strangely enough, has little effect on the majority of the characters). Certainly there’s minor coincidences here and there, the kind of unlikely occurrences which can make you wonder whether there’s a higher force at work, but I would suggest that the film has no central theme, but rather encompasses a witches brew of modern-day traumas: our struggle to communicate with our fellow man, the brittle core of family ties, the pain engendered by unrequited love (or lust), the weight of regret and the way in which the promise of a better tomorrow can seem like hollow words indeed.
Given that the script dwells on the negative aspects of the human psyche it’s no surprise that most of the characters come across as mean-spirited and self-absorbed, but in reality that’s merely because we are not privy to their redeeming qualities. Moore’s character, for example, walks the knife-edge of anti-depressants and suicidal tendencies, screaming abuse at people who deserve better as she sinks into an increasingly irrational state of mind. As a result she is not a particularly likeable person, but there are characters in other films who have suffered from similar problems without losing the viewer’s sympathy. The difference is that Magnolia refuses to reveal anything that might cause us to appreciate her finer qualities – it’s almost as if the characters are presented in the way they see themselves. Even the characters who are evidently supposed to be likeable, such as Jim the cop, possess a number of less-than-admirable attributes (he’s a prude, for one, and you get the impression that he may be on a minor-league power trip).
However, we should not confuse this with a failure to supply the characters with believable motivations, for this is something Magnolia has in spades. By the last third of the film you know exactly why each of them behaves the way they do, and it is this understanding which allows the viewer to empathise with their individual predicaments. It would be going too far to say you ever really get behind most of them, and as a result the film feels a little cold and dispassionate, but it does mean that we are left to make our own decisions about the relative merits of the characters, and that can be more than a little refreshing.
Given the track record of the majority of the major players, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the acting is of a uniformly high standard. Cruise is the obvious stand-out, revelling in a role which takes the “unscrupulous money-grubber with a heart of gold” he honed in Rain Man and boots the heart of gold over the sideline. He’s certainly given the best lines in the film (all of which are designed to give Grandma a coronary), but he backs them up with one of his most charismatic performances in recent memory. However, what really sets this film apart is the way in which the lesser-known actors hold their own with the big guns (Reilly and Flynn warrant special mention), leaving us with an ensemble which rarely puts a foot wrong.
Cruise aside, the fact that the film features no major stars actually works in its favour, since A-list actors are rarely adept at portraying normal people (the recognition factor is too high, and the fact that many of them look like models doesn’t help). Actors like Macy and Hoffman, on the other hand, eat roles like these for breakfast, and this allows the characters to live and breath, unfettered by the knowledge that we are watching nothing more than a good-looking, filthy-rich megastar pretending to be an average Joe. Considering the salaries of the entire cast probably amounted to less than an A-list actor pockets for a cameo, this film proves once again that the chequebooks are opened for the wrong people far too often.
As befits the subject matter, much of this film is literally dark, since the majority of the scenes are shot either indoors, at night or during a rainstorm. This contributes to the film’s depressing aura, making you wonder whether Anderson has been taking notes from David Fincher in his spare time. On the other hand, the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere (aided by Anderson’s penchant for close-up’s) infuses it with the feel of an intimate barroom conversation in the early hours of the morning – close, personal and fuelled by a combination of fatigue and drug-induced euphoria.
Not everything works, however - Anderson has an annoying tendency to drown out the dialogue with music, inviting viewers to risk damage to their ear-drums as they attempt to work out what’s being said, and he plays out half of Robards’ final monologue over a number of interesting visual events, making it impossible to concentrate on both at the same time. In an unusual move, the film also features a number of moments which can make you wonder whether you are supposed to be taking it seriously, such as a camera which wanders off on its own during an interlude backstage at the quiz show, or a bizarre radio sing-along featuring every major character in the piece (though that latter device was probably yet another of those unsubtle nods to the “impossible things do happen” theme). Personally I found these episodes distracting, since they highlight the fact that what we are watching is, after all, only a work of fiction, and thereby breaks the spell which only true immersion in a film can bring. There is, however, a hugely enjoyable opening sequence featuring a grab-bag of popular urban myths and sundry coincidences, though the similarly audacious climax appears to have alienated as many viewers as it impressed (I found it to be a refreshingly energising conclusion to an otherwise slow-paced narrative, though it was a trifle out of place with the generally serious tone of the film).
The film is long (the short and sweet ninety minute feature seems to have fallen out of favour in recent times), and parts of it drag a little (usually those involving Jason Robards’ character, who seems intent on boring the audience to death via a number of interminable scenes), but in general it services its extended running time with distinction. It’s also worth mentioning that the film features a great soundtrack courtesy of Aimee Mann (lead singer of ‘Til Tuesday in another life) which provides an appropriate companion to the proceedings.
Given its fine cast, involving storyline and three-dimensional characters, Magnolia is a film which deserves our respect. There are certainly flaws – subtlety is not one of the film’s many virtues, and the dearth of likeable characters can occasionally distance the viewer from the proceedings.However, when the closing credits roll there are few of us who will walk away unaffected, since it speaks to us from places we know all too well – the dark side of the morning, and the solitary depths of the human heart.
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originally posted: 04/16/00 02:27:28