Part poem, part jungle blossom, all brilliance, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Magnolia begins with a hymn to coincidence. Three fly past us in quick-sketch under the opening narration, as if God Almighty were pitching us an unproducible TV show: We jump from the strange death of a prosperous businessman at the turn of the century, swoop through the weird telemetries that govern a lethal family quarrel in the early ’60s, and, along the way, scoop up a pair of unlucky gamblers in their fatal, unpredictably linked relation to a remote forest fire. Such metaphysical acrobatics set an immense stage. As the overture subsides, Anderson fills our attention with a wide gallery of alienated souls who appear at first glance to have been chosen at random.
The place is the San Fernando Valley, the time right now. Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise, wearing a wolfish leer and a greasy samurai pigtail) is a self-made millionaire of the infomercial world, preaching a gospel of self-help for men called Seduce & Destroy. Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) is the grieving wife of Big Earl (Jason Robards), a television tycoon dying of cancer. Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is Big Earl‘s nurse, working an extralong shift on what appears the old man’s last day. Elsewhere in town, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), host of a long-running game show called What Do Kids Know?, visits his estranged daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), to tell her he‘s been diagnosed with cancer and has two months to live. She refuses to listen, screaming at the top of her lungs to drown him out. Elsewhere still, a police patrolman named Jim (John C. Reilly) answers a routine call about a domestic disturbance only to discover a closet full of dead bodies. On television, Jimmy Gator’s quiz show grinds along in what seems to be an all-day marathon as a bright child named Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) closes in on the grand prize. Everybody in the world seems to be watching this show, none more painfully than Donnie (William H. Macy), who back in 1968 used to be ”Little Donnie Smith,“ the show‘s original whiz kid.
Anderson weaves these interlacing relationships with tremendous care, rhyming camera moves, as well as using music and the echoes of names, to make us feel a subtle order drawing these disparate people into a transcendent fusion. It helps that the story transpires in a 24-hour period. An underlying unity, symphonically organized, takes the place of formulaic suspense; we and the characters are pitted against the coming of night and, in Big Earl’s case, death. Anderson, moving from strength to strength in the wake of his first two features, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, sets out in Magnolia to circumnavigate the universe in a day. This is a refreshing ambition to find in a young American filmmaker, an aim to be not postmodern, but truly modern, attempting, whatever the outcome, to embrace reality with the same encyclopedic, comedic vigor that James Joyce did in Ulysses. Anderson maps the Valley, his Dublin, with the same fond but pitiless eye; like Joyce, he shapes what looks at first to be cosmic-scale chaos around one of the oldest themes in literature, the search for one‘s father. In mythic terms, this is the same as a search for God, a towering ghost one may (in this patriarchy we’ve all inherited) freely equate with the search for one‘s creator and judge.
In this quest, every character has his or her thematic counterpart. When Jim the patrolman stops by Claudia’s apartment because she‘s been overheard screaming at Jim her father, the congruence between the two men’s names goes unremarked. Except that this new Jim, being struck by Cupid‘s arrow, infuriates the cocaine-addled Claudia with his blithe assumption that she must have been yelling at a boyfriend. (This, in context, is a clue to her deeper relationship with her father, but it is likewise perfectly uninflected.) Little Stanley Spector is trapped at his podium on live TV, desperate to pee, his needs brutally ignored by the grown-ups exploiting him, while the grown-up Little Donnie is in the condition opposite to needing to pee — he’s desperate for a drink. Linda Partridge, out to buy medication for Big Earl, is breaking down under the pressure of his coming death; her conscience is forcing her to realize how deeply she loves him, now that it‘s too late. Frank Mackey, who we learn early on is Big Earl’s cast-off son, is by direct contrast steeling himself: He stoically accepts that his hatred of Big Earl, having been bred in him while young, will be lifelong, a sort of destiny.
Moore is terrific during her explosions — but Cruise‘s performance is a sweet revelation. His stardom has generally tended to eclipse him as an actor, and his remarkably unmasked work in Eyes Wide Shut (for my money his best performance ever) was easy to underrate because Stanley Kubrick used his charismatic presence to create a man who is, for most of the story, an absence. Perhaps as a direct result, Cruise all but bounces off the walls for Anderson: His Frank Mackey is a grinning genie, jumping out of a bottle of snake oil. His viperish monologues about What Women Want are among the nastiest, funniest diatribes in recent film, a blend of Puck, Huck Finn and Sam Kinison. (Among the steps to personal empowerment is one called ”Pretending You Care.“) These arias are a spoken revenge fantasy for any boy who ever felt overwhelmed by his mother, and therein lies Anderson’s shrewdest insight. Frank, who is revealed (over his protests) to have cared tenderly for his mother after she was abandoned by Big Earl, does not, at bottom, hate women. He hates need. His venom kills the pain his father inflicted. Frank punishes women with his fury, not because he hates them, but because (as opposed to the escaped love of his life) they‘re emotionally available to be punished.
In classical narrative, says Joseph Campbell, the story of any hero’s journey culminates in a descent to the underworld, where the hero confronts and is healed by the shade of his father. Here that model is fulfilled thrice over. Anderson‘s vision abounds in shadowy fathers and wounded children. Cruise’s performance reaches a breathtaking summit at Big Earl‘s bedside (if Magnolia had no other virtue, one could recommend it for this scene alone), and the ensuing questions — What will Big Earl do? Will he open his eyes? What will he say? — yield a knife-edge suspense. Robards’ performance is hypnotic, but subterranean. He makes us feel that Big Earl, filled with rage though he may be, ghastly as the wreckage of his life is, has suffered enough to be burned clean of mean-spiritedness. Hoffman‘s angelic performance as his nurse makes this idea visible, even if the son is blind to it.
Then again, Big Earl may be the omniscient consciousness from whose point of view the movie is being told. The strange symmetry of events, the way abusive fathers multiply in a mirrored framework that stretches to infinity, the story’s bold excursions into surrealism — a song on the soundtrack with which every character sings along, and a plague of frogs straight out of the Old Testament that these Californians take in dreamy stride — the whole hallucinatory character of Magnolia makes greater sense if a dying man (and a dying TV mogul at that) is guiltily channel surfing, godlike, through the world he has created. This Is Your Life. There are any number of other ways to read the film — Anderson‘s style promotes a chorus of viewpoints in which each character is an epicenter. In this, Magnolia lives up to its title, which on one level recalls a big street in the San Fernando Valley, and on another is a live, multipetaled object of contemplation, a source of wonder.
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