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Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 exercise in overkill, hysteria and densely packed pretension was one of the most interesting and frustrating films of its year. Showing finely honed skills as a director of both actors and camera, Anderson labors so hard to make Magnolia profoundly affecting that he turns it into three unrelieved hours of screaming profanity and overheated bravura acting displays. The cast clearly relishes the opportunity -- big scenes for all! -- but the effect on audiences is like being beaten with a rubber hose.
As a writer-director, the precocious Anderson takes on The Meaning of Life, the Tragedy of Relationships and the random injustice of the Human Condition. His ten or so portraits of San Fernando Valley residents range from pathetic to loathsome and points beyond. Anderson grew up in the sunny Valley show business scene and surely has some insight into the venality and shallowness to be found there, but his assembled
At one point a likeable cop listens to a peppy black kid with 'tude, who sings a profane rap which he claims bears the solution to the cop's murder mystery. The cop rolls his eyes at the incoherent jumble, which is exactly our reaction to the "meaningful" content in the movie as a whole. Later, the kid's rap is reprised to give us a second chance at enlightenment. Nope, no me understando.
For all that, Magnolia is supremely well made, and the acting is often quite good; it's just that it has been fashioned into a "Modern Day Masterwork" (quoting the disc package text) that punishes the mind and spirit. The undertone of spirituality and apocalyptic-redemptive miracles at work feels like hymns being sung at a lynching. We expect young filmmakers to revel in negativity and enthusiastically point out human folly, as if it's big news that dying people have regrets or that middle age can be a time of rage and self-pity. Anderson impregnates his bloated epic with so much visual detail, classical allusions and Biblical references that it comes off as one of those densely handwritten religious screeds one might find abandoned on a bus bench. Except that this incoherent rant is dressed up in beautiful photography, strong performances and expert direction.
(Note to Savant readers: my tirade is in no way meant to tell you to avoid Magnolia. The film has avid fans falling out of the sky, you know, like frogs. But few movies in the last twenty years seemed as cluelessly abusive.)
A tangle of common frustration and pain joins some loosely associated lives at the edge of the TV industry. Quiz show celebrity Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) has been given two months to live on a cancer diagnosis, but is rejected by his estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a coke addict on the edge of sanity. Jimmy has never told his wife Rose why Claudia won't talk to him. Claudia meets a devout but insecure police officer, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). Jim has lost his gun following up on a murder case, and their first date turns into a painful encounter. Back at the quiz show, Jimmy Gator goes live on the air even though he feels weak and distressed. Whiz-kid contestant Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is denied permission to take a bathroom break. He's humiliated by the lack of compassion from any quarter, especially his avaricious father. Stanley has an adult counterpart in Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a frustrated, unhappy middle-aged gay who as a child was famous as a prodigy on Gator's quiz show. With his sales job in an electronics store in jeopardy, Donnie makes a spectacle of himself by publicly declaring his love to his favorite bartender.
The executive producer of the quiz show is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, in his final role), another cancer victim in his last hours of life. He's tended by Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a caring male nurse. Earl's much younger wife Linda (Julianne Moore) relieves her accumulated guilt for being an unfaithful spouse by abusing drugs. Linda makes the rounds of doctors to amass a large quantity of uppers, downers and straight morphine for Earl, but is clearly taking some of it herself. A profane mess of raw nerves, Linda screams abuse at anyone who contradicts her. Meanwhile, nurse Parma is following through on a verbal request from Earl to contact his estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey - who happens to be the hotshot performer and marketing mastermind behind an appallingly misogynistic self-help program called Seduce and Destroy. In seminars, Frank counsels frustrated young men on how to turn that ball-busting girl who wants to be a "friend" into a submissive sex slave. Frank gets the call about his father immediately after an ugly interview by a female reporter asking questions about his family secrets. He's compelled to have it out with Earl, who abandoned Frank and his mother long ago.
Meanwhile, cryptic signs accumulate in the form of Biblical prophecy and allusions to various writers. The heavy rain that seems to drape The Valley in a creeping depression eventually lets loose with a freak case of weird precipitation. Anderson has begun his movie with a sampling of crazy historical happenings involving amazing ironies and impossible-sounding coincidences. A couple of his examples are apocryphal myths, yet they're presented as evidence in the director's "life is strange" and "anything can happen" mega-thesis. Not only do the examples have nothing to do with the story, Magnolia stumbles through its 188 minutes of mostly dispiriting dramatics without ever finding a coherent statement to make. Throughout the film we can tell which monologues Andersons feels are the weakest, for he backs them with soundtrack underscore or rock cues that often fight for dominance on the audio track. One payoff scene, a moody but risible musical number in which all the major players (including the near-comatose Earl Partridge) tag-team singing the lyrics, kicks the movie into trendy inanity. It looks great, but it's freeze-dried Fellini.
Pardon me, but I felt it necessary to get all that venom out of my system; Magnolia was an enraging experience, even when recalled from nine years in the past. The original audience I watched it with sat in silence like whipped dogs, wondering what they'd done to deserve such an abusive onslaught. Hip filmgoers are supposed to accept profanity as a logical part of realistic filmmaking, but Anderson's constant battering of unimaginative crude dialogue comes off as a lame substitute for honest anguish in the performances.
Seen again on Warner's superbly engineered Blu-ray, it's a lot easier to admire the film's technical smoothness (an improvement on the overrated Boogie Nights) and director Anderson's in-our-faces confrontation of the performances. But many directorial decisions are still annoying, particularly the disruptive use of music. Also Sprach Zarathusta is given a lame workout over a shot in which Earl resembles the wizened, bedridden Dave Bowman of 2001: A Space Odyssey, just one of many grating distractions crammed in to splinter our attention. Anderson defensively justifies his arbitrary coincidences and miracles with Phil Parma's observation that the clichés we see in the movies became clichés because "they really happen". That's not the film's problem, as the events of Magnolia are actually fairly original. It's the pretense of deep meaning that raises objections.
Opening one's feelings to this group of characters is asking for punishment. Our hearts go out to the victims of fate or familial abuse, such as the sensitive Stanley and the sincere, sad Officer Kurring. Jimmy Gator seems basically okay at first, mainly because we see the devotion he inspires in his colleagues. Friendly actor Ricky Jay is prominent in that capacity. Anderson puts a sting in the tail of Gator's character arc and then pays it off with another "ain't life strange" coincidence. True philanthropists would also take the wailing, regretful Earl Partridge into their hearts, and extend an understanding hand to his wife Linda. Both are psychological disaster areas. Donnie Smith is so pathetically twisted, we seriously doubt if he can pull himself together without major help.
The deal breaker is Anderson's most hateful creation, Frank Mackey. Tom Cruise caps a decade of shallow, selfish characterizations with a sharply drawn monster for whom flamethrowers would be too kind. I don't believe there's anything liberal or conservative about my reaction to Anderson's handling of the Mackey character. That Anderson and Cruise even ask us to sympathize with any "heartfelt" emotional redemption on Mackey's part, even a partial one, is just too much.
It's obvious that Anderson hit a raw nerve with this viewer. Magnolia has a preachy tone but it left me with no discernable message, nor did it teach me anything about myself. This second viewing made me aware of just how well the film has been put together on a technical level, something I couldn't appreciate at the time. Perhaps a less sensitive (is that the right word?) advocate of the picture can put its elusive virtues in a perspective I can appreciate. 1
New Line (Warners) Blu-ray of Magnolia is a truly beautiful HD encoding of this very attractively filmed show, with great color and clarity. Dark scenes, as when Officer Kurring searches desperately for his lost gun, have plenty of detail. The uncompressed audio is also a godsend, allowing us to pick out the dialogue from the crowded soundtrack without the need for a simplified remix. Fans of the film will really appreciate the music video- influenced sequence.
Warners give us a rather limited range of extras. An enthusiastic Paul Thomas Anderson offers a "Video Diary" stream-of consciousness talk about the genesis of his film. The Frank T.J. Mackey seminar and infomercial material is here as a stand-alone, for the edification of horn-dog woman haters everywhere. The Aimee Mann music video Save Me is included (standard def) along with Anderson's personally edited teaser and trailer, and a long set of TV spots.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Magnolia Blu-ray rates:
1. I knew Anderson's father Ernie Anderson in a very informal way. While doing tape narration sessions for TV spots and trailers, I often ran into Mr. Anderson at a sound house in Cahuenga Pass. He'd be doing the crossword puzzle while waiting for another voiceover appointment. He was highly familiar to local TV viewers, especially when he'd introduce movies on channel 13 with his distinctive, somewhat eccentric readings: "And now back to The Gooooood, the Bad, and the UHH-GLEEE!". If Paul Thomas's personal experience in 1990s show biz was anything like Boogie Nights or Magnolia, I'm glad I didn't run into those people. The producers, entertainers and hopefuls I encountered were all fairly civilized.
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