Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is not for ambivalent, reserved people. It’s not an ambivalent, reserved movie. Melora Walters is losing her shit and Philip Seymour Hoffman is weeping and Tom Cruise is hyperventilating and William H. Macy is throwing up and Julianne Moore is like an exposed nerve and Jesus Christ, Jason Robards is like dying, right there on-screen. There’s so much happening in it—the picture careens recklessly from one emotional crest to the next, barely pausing to let us take a breath. It wrings us out, and then it hits us again.
Anderson conceived the film immediately after his breakthrough success with the brilliant, reckless Boogie Nights, initially conceiving it as a short, easy picture he’d knock off as a quick follow-up. But in the wind-up to the writing, he lost—within one week—both his father and beloved family friend Robert Ridgely (who acted in his first two films) to cancer, and the film became something else altogether: a lengthy (188 minutes) and emotionally relentless multi-character mosaic in the style of his hero and mentor Robert Altman. He even includes Altman utility players Henry Gibson and Michael Murphy as a shout-out (Altman vets Moore and Philip Baker Hall were already part of Anderson’s go-to company of actors).
The stories all unwind in the course of a single day, in California’s San Fernando Valley, centering on a dozen or so casually intertwined characters. Earl Partridge (Robards) is literally on his deathbed, succumbing to cancer, and asks a final favor of his caretaker Phil (Hoffman, in a delicate, warm piece of work). Earl knows what he’s doing is “so boring, goddamn dying wish and all that…” (Anderson, whose characters can sometimes sound a bit too similar, has an uncanny ear for the wandering way in which very old men speak). But he wants to talk, one last time, to the son he abandoned—a son who has transformed himself into the preening, misogynistic motivational speaker Frank TJ Mackey (Cruise).
A decade after the film’s release, the sight of Tom Cruise, the All-American movie star (though that image has certainly been somewhat tarnished), strutting across a hotel ballroom and delivering a lewd monologue (in the guise of a “Seduce and Destroy” seminar) maintains its shock power. He lobs his profanities and slurs like grenades, backed up by cringe-worthy background slides like “How to turn that ‘friend’ into your sperm receptacle.” Frank is having a bit of a day himself; during the lunch break of the one-day seminar, he has an interview with a female journalist (April Grace) that goes from pleasant to ugly in the blink of an eye. In those scenes, Anderson takes Cruise’s movie-star confidence and smarm and turns it inside out—he gives the actor a hateful, dark edge, and then reveals the open wounds underneath. The things that Cruise is doing with his face as he stands in that stairwell, trying to decide if he takes the call, are remarkable; there’s an urgency to his acting here, to the way he lets you in on that moment.
While Phil is trying to reconnect Earl with his estranged son, Earl’s trophy wife Linda (Moore) is at her wit’s end; from the panicked state she’s in at the beginning of the story, you’d think she doesn’t have anywhere to go. You’d be wrong. She goes out for the day, to “run errands,” but her visits to various doctors and lawyers provide her with no acceptable answers, and her breakdown at a pharmacy and subsequent confession to a family friend (“I did so many bad things”) are just heart-wrenching. This is a powerful actress giving her most raw performance to date.
Across town, another sick man is trying to put his house in order. Game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is dying of bone cancer, and wants to make things right with his estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). She’s just falling apart; she spends her days alone in her apartment, blasting music and snorting coke, going out at night only to score more coke and have anonymous sex. When good-hearted LAPD officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) arrives at her door to respond to a noise complaint, though, his heart stops—something about her captures him immediately. Anderson seems to see their awkward courtship as so tentative and fragile that he’s afraid to impose; their first few scenes are played out in a series of slightly distanced two-shots, and he only goes in close later, when the pair goes out on an improbable date. He’s doing some difficult, risky things in those Jim and Claudia scenes—the writing and the playing is so open, so honest (“I started this didn’t I, didn’t I, fuck!” she chastises herself), and it’s by design. Claudia wonders, at the beginning of their dinner, what it would be like if they just told each other everything, all of their secrets, and then, almost immediately, she thinks better of it. But Jim wants to have that with her, wants to be there with her, even if he has no idea what he’s getting into. It’s striking, how sensitive these two performances are (to each other, and to us); Reilly has never been better in a film, and Walters—who I honestly thought was going to be a huge star after this movie—manages to make her numerous tics and troubles into texture, rather than affectation.
Claudia isn’t the only one Jimmy Gator has damaged. There is his wife Rose, played by Melinda Dillon in a performance that swings from pure devotion to steely resolve (“I’m not through asking my questions”) to absolute heartbreak (“You should know better”). There is Macy as former contestant “Quiz Kid Donnie Smith” (he’s always called that), a child genius who has become an absolute wreck of a grown man, failing at his job and planning an ill-advised robbery to pay for braces he doesn’t need. And there is little Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), in the midst of a current run of wins on Gator’s show “What Do Kids Know?”, who longs only for the love of his father, a would-be actor played with slimy precision by Michael Bowen. And the son is disappointed by his father, as was Frank TJ Mackey, as was Claudia Wilson Gator, and these things go around and around and around again.
Anderson’s direction is astonishingly confident (again, this was his third feature film). Much has been made of Magnolia’s considerable length, but the film never slows or drags—indeed, quite the opposite. Anderson’s restless, darting camera plunges us headlong into the tale, with virtuoso tracking shots and zipping dolleys and his signature extreme close-ups, propelled by Jon Brion’s invaluable score, which serves as the driving pulse of the movie, repetitive but hypnotic. In a way, the picture carves out its own sense of time; we get lost in these stories, adrift in Anderson’s self-contained world. His control of what could have easily become a big, unwieldy mess of a movie is impressive—watch how artfully he crosscuts big sequences of things coming together or things falling apart (the game show, the Mackey interview, Linda in the pharmacy), so that, unlike other, lesser filmmakers taking a swing at the faux-Altman template, it never feels like we’re watching a series of separated, dispensable stories. It’s all one, all of a piece—even the seemingly unrelated but impossibly clever pre-title sequence (“This is not just a matter of chance,” narrator Ricky Jay assures us. “No, these strange things happen all the time”), or the audacious musical number. It’s the kind of scene that gobsmacks us twice: we can’t believe that he’s doing it, and we can’t believe that they’re pulling it off in such a pleasurable, effective way. It’s a brave, bold act of cinematic chutzpah. Same goes for the famous surprise closing (I won’t give it away), which is not only a technical marvel, but ends up serving the same essential structural function as the earthquake in Short Cuts, Magnolia’s closest cinematic influence.
But Anderson’s most impressive achievement is his sprawling, magnificent screenplay, organized by movements of weather and punctured by occasional acknowledgments of its own improbability and cinematic nature. “And we generally say, ‘Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn't believe it,’" notes the narrator, “Someone's so-and-so met someone else's so-and-so and so on.” On the phone with Frank’s people, Phil acknowledges that what he’s asking is like “a scene from a movie,” but pleads, “I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true… see, see this is the scene in the movie where you help me out.”
No matter how familiar the situations or seemingly pat the construction, Anderson’s script is a torrent of words, a howl of emotion that feels as though it flooded out of the filmmaker without a filter, as if he wrote it the way Claudia asks Jim to be with her. But it’s not shapeless or self-indulgent. It’s about so many big things, Life and Death and Love and Faith and Family and Pain and most of all, more than any of the others, it’s about Redemption—but not in that bullshit way that a movie that doesn’t know what it’s about is suddenly about Redemption. Magnolia looks all of these damaged people right in the eye, with dignity and patience. “If you can forgive someone…” Jim notes, at the end of the film, “that’s the tough part. What can we forgive?”
Wise, witty, smart, and deeply moving, Magnolia was one of the last major films of the 1990s, and certainly one of the best. It is a film that improves with age—both because of its radically advanced and sophisticated storytelling, and because it is the kind of picture that we understand better, the older we get. In its own specific, hard-won way, it’s something of a miracle.