As complicated and intricate as the details might appear or seem in Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature, Magnolia, they really are quite simple. Set during one day in Los Angeles, Magnolia connects at least a dozen characters as they go on with their lives at various jobs, homes, and otherwise mundane activities. The overriding important detail in this film is theme, not any one story line or character or set of plot points. All of the characters add up to pieces of the story of the totality of what is being captured on film.
The film opens and closes with a narration by Ricky Jay who goes on to play a producer on the game show “What Do Kids Know?” that plays a key role in the story. The narration begins:
So we can see very clearly how much fate, chance, coincidence, and predestined realities are very much the mood and tone of the movie. We all wonder why these things happen to us, why us, why me? The characters shown throughout the movie are all dealing with personal crises while still living their day to day lives. People fall apart, they are destroyed, they are redeemed, they are born again. It’s a brilliant and twisted vision of humanity and the drama of how desperate we all can be if put in the wrong situation.
Magnolia runs 168 minutes and it never ceases to be visually interesting using an insistent and relentless editing style. We are constantly thrusted forward with action and pacing, music working in the background mixing with dialogue to act as part montage part regular scene. Anderson is so assured and he has to be, juggling a dozen different storylines that also somehow all connect, editing has to be at the forefront of his mind as he’s putting it all together. It’s a consistently captivating narrative that never loses it’s focus, cutting back and forth between character drama and the lonely ennui of Los Angeles.
The acting talent on display is nothing short of incredible and world class, including a career best performance from Tom Cruise. Magnolia is a mosaic of LA, a loving pastiche to Robert Altman’s films like MASH and Nashville. Though Anderson certainly seems more ambitious in showing humans as they are in reality, the messy, contradictory, flawed nature that requires great acting performances. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Jason Robards, Felicity Huffman, Jeremy Blackman, and Luis Guzman all comprise this incredible cast.
Cruise plays Frank T.J. Mackey, an inspirational speaker for chauvinistic male driven content, speaks to a room full of paying men to whatever convention or event is being held. He alternates between these misogynistic and demeaning lectures and an interview he’s giving to a reporter (April Grace) about himself. His father Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is on his death bed being cared for by Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) as a nurse who is tasked by his dying patient to find his estranged son. Julianne Moore plays Linda Partridge who’s dealing with feelings of immense guilt and distress over the near death of her husband. Feelings that she admits to their lawyer that she hasn’t been faithful, feeling like she’s done nothing but spend his money and that she doesn’t want anything of his, that she couldn’t possibly deserve it.
Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) the host of a long running game show “What Do Kids Know?” is dying from cancer and has spiraled downwards into depression by drinking too much, an act he commits just so he can go on and host the show he’s always done. His daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) is a coke addict and spends her days at home seemingly disabled to do anything with her life, stuck in a state of being. She’s visited by the local patrolmen police officer Jim (John C. Reilly) when her music is playing too loudly. During their interaction, where Claudia is just wanting Jim to go away so she can stop hiding her drugs, she agrees to go on a date with Jim who’s just a really lonely but naive warmhearted guy wanting to see the best in another person.
Stanley Spector is the current whiz kid star of “What Do Kids Know?” he’s currently tied for the record of consecutive wins set by Donnie Smith (William H. Macy). Stanley has a demanding and verbally abusive father (Michael Bowen) who demands a lot of Stanley wearing him down with constant pressure and requests for him to be sharp and perform. Donnie Smith sits alone in a bar, fantasizing over the hot young bartender named Brad. He talks of getting braces to straighten his teeth, to try to stay relevant, look younger, be attractive. Once we notice Brad with the braces we understand that Donnie’s need to get them is his desperate need to attract him and feel wanted. These characters are so tragic and yet so real, they speak to our deepest fears and our highest hopes, of what we all might run into if we don’t deal with who we are and what we’ve done to one another.
With all of the extensive character work on display it’s easy to forget how wonderfully constructed the music for the film is. Composed almost entirely by Amy Mann, Magnolia’s soundtrack was written by the successful song writer by request from Director Paul Thomas Anderson. “Wise Up” was used as a musically interactive piece with the main actors singing a piece of the song as a part of a montage. This could be a criticism of the film, that it doesn’t stay consistent with the nature of the rest of the film. But it does the opposite. It informs the picture even more. It adds a level of empathy, understanding, and compassion but it also through the music and lyrics acknowledges that nothing will get better until you wise up.
Ending with the finality and pessimism of humans not being able to change, and Mann singing “so just give up.” It’s a haunting scene that invests us even more with the characters we’re watching, knowing how stuck they are in their lives and situations. The instrumental score of Magnolia is so sweeping and melancholic and it layers the film with a longing that adds to the incredible atmosphere and mood of the aesthetic.
The wide shots of Los Angeles streets, naturally lit in the pouring rain, really capturing shades of blue and black and the feeling of the place are so well placed and interwoven with the character narratives. There are considerable themes of humanistic elements throughout Magnolia. Redemption, forgiveness, justice, guilt, fear, acceptance are all on display between these characters, it is a saga of human drama. An epic grand painting beautifully captured over a three hour span spun by a visual master of film that touches the very heart of what it is to be a human and lost in the chaos of life.
Magnolia is a film that swings for the fences, it attempts to say something profound through human stories, spending time with people who are just trying to hold onto anything as their lives are spiraling out of control. There’s a repeated line by multiple characters and repeated again at the very end of the movie. “The book says: We may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us.” There’s a foreboding quality to that line, something based on fate, something we might not be able to control. That at any moment our past might come back to irrevocably harm us and take from us what we hold most dear.
There are some incredible individual performances on display between Cruise, Moore, and Hoffman. Moore lashes out at rude and unprofessional pharmaceutical workers who question her prescription of liquid morphine and additional drugs for her dying husband. In the hands of any other actress the scene could come off as melodramatic or over the top but Moore plays a hysterical woman with an even keel and we feel her pain not her alienation. She ends up saved by the same person who’s responsible for a murder that opens the movie and introduces us to John C. Reilly’s policeman Jim.
Tom Cruise plays Frank with a vulnerability that sits just below the surface of his chauvinistic bravado and attitude. He wears his he-man persona on the surface dodging questions from the reporter and deflecting with his research backed answers. He’s devastated when he is presented with the truth of his past. That his mother died young and his father is still alive and the former head of a TV production company. The change in tone, body language, and wounded demeanor reveal something deeper at work than just a misogynistic pig. Cruise gives Frank a human level that has been absent up until this point that marvels in it’s depth. Phil Parma is the middle man between getting Frank to see his father, with one busy running his enterprise and the other sick and dying in bed.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a character that on the surface is quite bland, a tremendous level of feeling and care. Having to express such insistence, importance, and the direness of the moment to the point of tears when no one was on the other end of that phone. These scenes are some of the most dramatic, will a life slip away without being able to make things right? Not everything adds up neatly, some questions are still lingering out there as to who or why, but life is chaos as this film shows us. Our lives are chaotic, random, coincidental, terrible tragedies happen, amazing miracles wind up in our lap. Life is both tragic and stupendous.
It’s a wonderful meditation on what it is to be human and the realization of how much we aren’t in control of things. Be it fate or just coincidence, things just happen, and sometimes there are no reasons. But the film is never bleak with it’s characters fates, with their futures. It’s such a well balanced film in this way, that it allows their characters to have flaws, have faults and for things to befall them but that they get up and are able to try again, they aren’t doomed no matter how they might feel.
Magnolia is a modern masterpiece of cinema, a brilliantly executed vision of human redemption and suffering, chaos and order, fate and free will. It plays like a great piece of literature that reveals universal truths about the human condition and our place in civilization. We end with this:
“And there is the account of the hanging of three men, and a scuba diver, and a suicide. There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, “Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.” Someone’s so-and-so met someone else’s so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”