Screenplay : Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Jason Robards (Earl Partridge), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), Tom Cruise (Frank Mackey), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), John C. Reilly (Officer Jim Kurring), Melora Walters (Claudia Gator), Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector), William H. Macy (Donnie Smith), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator)
Watching P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia" is like moving deep into the heart of a vertiginous spiral. "Magnolia" takes place over one day in Los Angeles and tells interlocking stories involving a dozen different characters. The first hour and a half of the film takes its time setting up these characters and giving them each large chunks of screen time. It is like moving along the wide, gently arching outer rings of the spiral. However, as the film progresses and we move closer and closer to the inner part of the spiral, the pace increases, and the stories tighten and move rapidly to the point at which they converge on a night that is witness to one of the most bizarre, yet oddly appropriate (super)natural phenomena I have ever seen on film.
It is a breathtaking, three-hour process, but one that is infinitely worth the time involved. "Magnolia," like Anderson's break-out hit, 1997's "Boogie Nights," is something of a masterpiece, a brilliant, ambitious work painted on a sprawling canvas.
It is much like another brilliant, ambitious work made six years ago: Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (1993). In fact, they are similar in so many ways, that "Magnolia" can be seen as a kind of sister film to "Short Cuts." Both films are microcosms for America as a whole that take place in Southern California. Both films feature a vast array of angst-ridden characters who are alienated from themselves and those around them, and both films build to a startling climax involving a natural calamity. However, "Magnolia" is no knock-off, and comparing it "Short Cuts" is my way of noting just how extraordinary it is ("Short Cuts" being the best film Altman has made in two decades, which means that, yes, I feel it is better than "The Player").
There are numerous themes running throughout the many layers of "Magnolia," but perhaps the strongest of these is the notion of how damaging families can be to their members. P.T. Anderson's previous two films, "Hard Eight" (1996) and "Boogie Nights," both focused on the bonds among members of non-biological families. In "Magnolia," Anderson focuses on the ties among members of biological families, and he doesn't find much to celebrate. In fact, the manner in which fathers and sons treat each other in "Magnolia" plays like an exhibit to warrant the importance of the surrogate father-son relationships in his previous two films.
The primary father-son relationship at the heart of "Magnolia" is between Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a deathly ill television executive, and his estranged son, Frank "T.J." Mackey (Tom Cruise), an extravagant self-help guru and founder of the aptly titled "Seduce and Destroy," a series of books and seminars that teach men how to pick up (or, really, dominate) women. Frank is the classic case of the raging extrovert whose outgoing charisma and vulgar antics are merely a mask for the slow torture within. Earl, even at the edge of death, is fighting internal torture of his own, mainly the guilt he feels about the various failures of his two marriages, the second of which is to an attractive, younger woman (Julianne Moore) who is battling her own personal demons with a steady stream of prescription drugs.
There is also the relationship between Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a child genius who wins big bucks on a fictitious TV quiz show called "What Do Kids Know?" and his father (Michael Bowen), an uncaring, tyrannical lout whose only interest in his son is in how much money the boy can earn answering questions. This relationship has a counterpart in Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who used to be in Stanley's place back in the 1960s, but is now a pathetic has-been because his parents ran off with all the money he won on the show. This is depicted most incisively in a scene showing Donnie sitting dejectedly at his kitchen table, dwarfed by a $100,000 check blown up to poster size on the wall behind him--money he earned, yet never saw. The film suggests that it is not so much the loss of money that has damaged him, but his eventual realization that his earning potential was the only thing his parents loved about him.
Of course, not all the relationships are between fathers and sons--it extends to fathers and daughters, as well. The host of "What Do Kids Know?" is a man named Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who is also dying of cancer. He is so distant from his cocaine-snorting daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), that even when he shows up at her apartment to tell her that he has mere months to live, she cannot stop from screaming at him to get out.
One of the interesting things about the manner in which Anderson structured the screenplay for "Magnolia" is in how it forces your feelings about these broken relationships to evolve as the story progresses. In the first half of the movie, it seems that the children are self-absorbed, unsympathetic cads who hate their parents for no good reason. However, throughout the film Anderson slowly reveals more about their past relationships, and it soon becomes clear why the canyons between them have been dug so deep.
When we first meet Frank Mackey in all his obnoxious glory, pandering to a roomful of misguided men and teaching them how to "fake like you're nice and caring" in order to get a woman in bed, it seems there is no way his character could possibly be redeemed. Yet, Anderson supplies an explanation for his character that not only rationalizes much of his misogynistic and prevaricating behavior, but also casts a great deal of doubt on the character of Earl, his bed-ridden, dying father. The same goes for Claudia and her relationship with Jimmy. Near the end of the film, Anderson stages a heart-rending sequence in which Jimmy finally admits to his wife (Melinda Dillon) why he thinks Claudia hates him so much, and the effect is devastating to all involved.
There are only two characters in the film who don't seem in dire need of redemption: Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a straight-arrow cop who finds himself falling in love with Claudia, and Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Earl's attending nurse who has, in his own way, fallen in love with the dying old man and does everything in his power to meet Earl's request to see his son one more time. Officer Jim and Phil seem to function as mediators in the slowly crumbling lives of those around them, offering help and solace when it will be accepted.
"Magnolia" is a superb drama punctuated with dark moments of human comedy and an almost operatic sense of grandeur. Like "Boogie Nights," it is an insanely ambitious, yet utterly assured, piece of work. Anderson is only 29 years old, yet he writes and directs with the kind of confidence that is usually found only in those who have been making films for decades. He also has an undeniable talent with actors, and he elicits outstanding performances from everyone involved, especially Cruise as the bad-boy guru, which is a role Anderson wrote specifically with the actor in mind.
However, of all these characters, I think the young Stanley Spector is the lynchpin character. Although he is the only child in the film, he is wise beyond his years, and he realizes things as a preadolescent that the adult characters still haven't figured out yet, which is most likely why they are suffering so intensely. At one point in the film, Stanley brings a live television broadcast to an awkward standstill when he refuses to stand up and answer a question because he has been forced to sit on-stage for so long that he has wet himself. In a striking, solemn-faced monologue, he addresses both the studio audience and us, the movie's audience, asking why we feel the need to make him stand out. Why do we have to stare at him and put him on a TV stage and babble about how cute he is, just because he is a child who can answer difficult questions? It is a startling moment because, in a few sentence, he brings down all the silly illusions surrounding our conceptions of others and how we cement it all on the grand stage of modern television.
However, even more moving is the quiet scene at the end of the film when he approaches his sleeping father and says, quite simply, "Dad, you need to be nicer to me." More than anything else, that is the key to the characters in this film and the explanation of why there is so much misery, not only in their lives, but in the world at large. Simply put, people need to be nicer to each other.
|Magnolia: Platinum Series DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Supplements|| "Magnolia Diary" documentary on the film's production|
"Seduce & Destroy" infomercial
Frank T.J. Mackey seminar
"Save Me" music video
Nine TV spots
|The widescreen anamorphic transfer of "Magnolia" is, like so many of New Line's discs, simply excellent. Unlike P.T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" is a much more visually subdued film, with much of it taking place in darkened rooms. Black levels in these scenes are perfectly rendered, without any grain or pixel break-up. The film does have its share of visual flash, though, and the transfer handles these scenes just as well. Contrast is excellent, as is the color saturation and detail level. The image is perfectly sharp without any noticeable edge enhancement. Simply put, this is another reference quality transfer from New Line.|
|Because this is a character-driven film, much of the soundtrack is simply dialogue with only a small amount of background musical accompaniment. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack keeps most of the action on the front soundstage, and the dialogue is crisp and always audible. Of course, in the last portion of the film during a particularly strange natural disaster, the soundtrack opens up and makes great use of the surround speakers and the LFE channel to create a sensation of complete chaos and destruction. Overall, a very fine soundtrack that does its job nicely.|
|The main supplement on this double-disc set is the 75-minute documentary by filmmaker Mark Rance on the production of the film. Titled "The Moment," this behind-the-scenes look at the making of "Magnolia" is a real gem, offering brief interviews with the stars, tons of backstage and pre-production footage, and plenty of P.T. Anderson at some of his most stressed and therefore candid moments. Anderson is a ball of fire throughout the film, and it is easy to see why he is able to construct such elaborate, epic films. He wouldn't have it any other way. Rance had complete access to the set while making his film, and he gives an impressive account of the difficulties inherent in such an ambitious production (there is the notable absence of Tom Cruise in the documentary; apparently, his people wouldn't allow him to be filmed). The rest of the supplements on the second disc are mostly standard fare, including a theatrical and teaser trailer, as well as nine television spots. Those who enjoyed Cruise's Oscar-nominated role as the misogynist self-help guru will enjoy a complete Frank T.J. Mackey "Seduce & Destroy" infomercial (part of which appears in the film), as well as an extended sequence of one of his seminars. The disc also includes a music video for Aimee Mann's song "Save Me," which was ludicrously overlooked by the Academy Awards last year. And, for those who like hidden extras, there is a reel of outtakes squeezed in behind the color bars on the second disc.|