USA (188 mi) 1999 d: Paul Thomas Anderson
I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I’ll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I’ll make some clunkers, maybe I’ll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make.
—Paul Thomas Anderson
Among the more intensely personal films out there, contemplative, ambitious, while often feeling exhilarating, taken for a wild ride on an out-of-control locomotive carrying a heavy weight that at any time can be catapulted in your direction, like an accident waiting to happen. Much is made of a jarring prologue about long odds, asking what are the chances for strange and bizarre events to occur, that no one would believe, yet inevitably they do happen all the time, as life defies the odds. Showing a penchant for camera movement and a constantly changing editing scheme, the film is literally a choreography of shifting emotions, like being caught up in a wave cycle that repeats endlessly, with viewers riding wave after wave of emotions. The explosive nature of these feelings, literally gushing from an open hydrant, is emphasized throughout, with occasional moments that simply soar with dramatic power. Arguably the best of all Anderson films, largely due to the dazzling operatic fashion in which the entirety of his ideas are displayed, tapping into life and death issues, especially pain, longing, guilt, regret, and forgiveness, with redemption being the operative word, which this film expresses with grace and style. Easily the most Altmanesque Anderson film, where the ensemble concept drives the narrative, with a mosaic of multiple stories overlapping into other stories, all careening towards similar ends, leaving an audience thoroughly satiated afterwards, as this is a gloriously unapologetic cinema manifesto, with an unflinching style of bravura filmmaking that is fiercely original and simply not matched elsewhere, filled with detailed side trips that border on the bizarre, yet all contribute to the whole. One of the more amazing films to initially experience, with viewers blown away by the ingenuity, yet the breathtaking style is equally matched by a complexity of thought and depth of dramatic content, making this one of the more challenging films on record, as it can feel overwhelming to process afterwards, driven by desperation, movingly melodramatic, like being hit by a tidal wave or a freight train of emotion. Any film that leaves viewers with seemingly unfathomable ideas that need to be figured out afterwards is always a good thing, as that means the film evolves long after the audience has left the theater. This gestation period is remarkable, as it initially happened in an era before the popularity of smartphones and the Internet, so you had to figure things out the old-fashioned way, through curiosity and personal exploration, asking yourself what it all means. What was certain, however, right from the start, was the cinematic mastery on display, as even if individual little pieces felt odd, overlong, or didn’t fit, the overall delight in experiencing the surprises this film offers is unforgettable, as there are few others like it.
Among the guiding principles of the film is that there is no clear-cut protagonist, in the manner of Altman’s Nashville (1975) or Short Cuts (1993), where instead there is a whirlwind of moving parts or subplots, with no fewer than ten characters all collectively feeding into the overall vision, fueled by loners or outcasts who are among the loneliest people on the planet, immediately emphasized when a myriad of characters are introduced in song by Aimee Mann, former vocalist of ‘Til Tuesday, whose fragile songs of vulnerability and pain contribute to Anderson’s dramatic conception, featured throughout the film, Aimee Mann ONE - YouTube (2:54).
One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know
One is the loneliest number
One is the loneliest number
One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do
One is the loneliest number, much much worse than two
One is the number divided by two
Jumping back and forth between Earl Partridge (Jason Robards in his final role), a bedridden misanthropic elderly man dying of cancer, Linda (Julianne Moore), his shrill and neurotic trophy wife, drug-riddled, in a state of hysteria throughout, the essence of high strung and high maintenance (incredulously nominated for Best Supporting Actress, though she’s the only one who consistently overacts), Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman, a revelation in the role, understated throughout, arguably the best thing in the film), his kind and patiently caring male nurse, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a veteran game show host who discovers he’s dying of cancer, Claudia (Melora Walters), his estranged drug-addicted daughter who uses men and cocaine to numb the pain, Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), a lonely child prodigy and long-running contestant featured on his quiz show, exploited and browbeaten by his overbearing father (Michael Bowen), Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), former child quiz show sensation who was hit by lightning and survived, but lost his smarts, whose own parents stole all his earnings, Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a goodhearted cop looking to make a difference, and Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise, easily his best role, nominated for Best Supporting Actor), a bombastic and misogynistic television huckster and long-lost son of Earl, certainly one of the established themes is that the sins of the fathers will be forced upon their children, providing a roller coaster ride of conflicting emotions and unending drama. The characters run the gamut of wide-ranging, human emotions, often captured in despicable moments of their life, with the film shining a light on what they’d prefer was kept hidden, creating an uncomfortable awkwardness throughout, yet the beauty of the film rests upon the decision of nearly every character to try to do better, to struggle with their abysmal failures, at times feeling like a demolition derby of contrasting emotions, each crashing into one another, creating a chain reaction, leaving behind a series of failed efforts in the scrap heap. In a world numb to their efforts, that seemingly doesn’t care, viewers have a decidedly different vantage point, an insider’s view, as we’re privy to these intimate moments, sharing the pain and anguish with each character, knowing they wish it was different.
One of the strengths of this director is his devoted empathy for the characters, as if each represents an autobiographical stage in his own life, representing something precious and significant. More than any other Anderson film, the audience sympathizes as well, perhaps due to the mysterious strangeness of how these circuitously intertwined lives are presented, where we’re along for the journey, taking note at each new development. It’s rare to find such an enormously bighearted cop, as he’s ostracized by his fellow officers as being too soft, yet he has an agenda, suggesting “As we move through life, we should try to do good.” While we’re witness to the self-destructive behavior of Claudia, snorting coke nonstop, prone to dangerous mood swings and a built-up anger, refusing to even speak to her father, kicking him out of the apartment when he announces his illness, screaming at him to leave, wanting to be rid of him, the police officer sees none of that, instead knocking on her door investigating a disturbance in the building, with music turned up to peak volume, shattering everyone’s last nerve. Once he gets her to quiet down, he takes a more personal interest, sympathizing with a troubled woman living alone, finding her attractive, so lonely himself that he actually asks her out on a date. What are the chances of this happening? Before the night is done he loses his gun in the bushes observing a crime in action, a humiliating moment that requires the attention of dozens of other cops searching for his gun, only to later appear out of nowhere. While there’s no rational explanation for the appearance of the gun, nonetheless it does. All of this is part of a narrative chain reaction that continually reoccurs with each of the characters, seemingly with no rhyme or reason, yet strange things keep happening. Perhaps the most outlandish moments occur with Frank, a self-professed alpha-male decked out in black leather who teaches a “Seduce and Destroy” seminar whose singular message is “Respect the cock and tame the cunt,” repeated to howling applause from his worshipping followers. His mantra of male supremacy is a hoot, “full of sound and fury,” his colossal arrogance appalling, yet we are transfixed by the sheer cultish drama he orchestrates wielding enormous power that literally jumps off the screen. In complete contrast, we have the innocence of Stanley, a child lugging more bags of books than he can carry, spending hours at the library surrounded by them all, scouring each for more specific information to learn. Yet when it’s time for the quiz show, he reports a need to go to the bathroom, which falls on deaf ears, as the show is about to begin, where the kid is a walking encyclopedia, filled with knowledge on literally every subject. Simultaneously, Jimmy Gator is suffering from the effects of his sickness, losing all clarity, including his eyesight, unable to recall what he just said, with his mind wandering, going into a fog, all exposed on live television, causing panic and alarm from the technical crew. During a brief break, when Stanley again announces a need to pee, his request is rudely denied, informed he needs to hold it, where his normally active buzzer goes silent for an entire segment, with the other kids taking advantage of him, forcing him to answer every single question, with viewers caught up in his excruciating personal torment, as time literally stops, seemingly forever, where the exposed vulnerability of this mistreated child is simply enormous, with Stanley eventually peeing on himself in front of the cameras, with his angry Dad going bonkers in the waiting room, thinking only of the lost money his son won’t generate.
Continually crosscutting from one story to another, giving all characters equal time, viewers are constantly injected with new blood, experiencing an increasingly elevated dynamic of new drama, maintaining a surprising level of intensity for a three-hour film. Donnie Smith, however, may be the saddest and most pathetic character in the film, a washed-up former quiz show whiz kid that is now a failed electronic salesman recently fired from his job, denounced as a failure, where he can’t explain why he’s getting braces at his ripe old age, or how he can afford it, ending up at a bar where the handsome young bartender is wearing braces. In a strange game, one customer (Henry Gibson) is luring the bartender with dollar bills, taking his focus away from Donnie, who’s also trying to get his attention, eventually having a seat next to his rival, where he’s like death warmed over in terms of his dismal outlook, telling the entire bar he was hit by lightning, doomed ever since as his brain was scrambled, leaving him sad and stupid, actually blurting out his declaration of love for the bartender, a rare moment of devastation and open humiliation that also falls on deaf ears, left to reflect on the consequences of his miserable life. It’s only in the latter part of the film that we learn of the connection of Earl and Frank, and it comes in a surprising moment of lucidity for Earl, with Phil tenderly at his bedside engaging him, as Earl is otherwise unconscious through most of the film. But for one moment, he reflects upon what a selfish lout he’s been, recalling his first marriage, his first real love, Frank’s mother, confessing how badly he mistreated her, fooling around with other women, even abandoning her when she got sick with cancer, forcing Frank to take care of her when he was barely a teenager, and now he’s dying alone, filled with guilt and regret, excoriating himself for all his stupid mistakes. Phil hears all this, as well as his plea to find Frank, before he lapses back into unconsciousness. Heroically, he attempts to get through the telephone hotlines promoting Frank’s self-help tapes, finding someone who can put him in touch with Frank, which is a Herculean effort, happening simultaneous to a cringeworthy TV interview that methodically strips away the repressed details of his personal life, but eventually, after refusing to recognize him, Frank arrives at the door, angrily denouncing his father in a spontaneous rage, calling him everything in the book, refusing to show an ounce of remorse before he too breaks down, succumbing to the moment, perhaps even blaming the old man for getting out of it too easily, as he’s a shell of his former self. Afterwards, with Phil tearfully administering a high dosage pain-relieving morphine medication that will likely never allow Earl to regain consciousness, the remarkable happens, again fueled by an Aimee Mann song, Magnolia - "Wise Up" scene - YouTube (4:37), with characters breaking into song, including Earl, a truly spectacular scene of enormous transcendent power, probably the defining moment of the film, where the memory of this scene is indelibly imprinted into the collective viewers’ subconscious. Meanwhile, Donnie devises a devious plan of robbery, stealing money for the braces he doesn’t really need, but thinks it will romantically link him to the bartender, a hair-brained scheme that even he gives up on, changing his mind in midstream, but gets locked out trying to return the money, climbing a gutter to get back in, where he’s spotted by a cruising Officer Jim. With that moral dilemma in play, perhaps questioning the balance of the universe, the film is not afraid to explore the supernatural, where a downpour of rainfall subsides, only to be followed by what amounts to an apocalyptical event of Biblical proportions, something you read about but never experience, as frogs literally fall from the sky, by the hundreds and thousands, like a plague of locusts, where we see Stanley finally telling his father, “Dad, you need to be nicer to me,” with Stanley, perhaps the only one not freaked out by the experience, seen joyously watching the frogs projected against the library wall, muttering, “This is something that happens,” suggesting the unpredictable really does happen, with one of the descending frogs hitting Donnie, knocking him to the ground where he smashes his teeth, perhaps now actually needing braces for repair, finally rescued by a friendly officer on the scene, who is seen afterwards paying a visit to Claudia, previously viewed as an open wound, but now, somehow different, leaving the film open ended and more optimistic, a collective trauma veering towards forgiveness, shown in a final shot, Save Me from Magnolia - YouTube (4:20).