30 films in 30 days: #6 Magnolia (1999)

Emotions in motion

Magnolia is a movie stuck in overdrive.  It’s been years since I’ve screened it, but watching it again was a reminder of how Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t simply show you his story, he hurtles it at you at Strasbergian speed.

To watch it is to witness a filmmaker giving license to all of his ambitions at once—and it’s both a good and bad thing in this case. It’s why writers need editors and directors need producers (and editors). Magnolia has been called a beautiful trainwreck and that’s a good way to think of it. It overheats and then melts down.

By my reckoning, the movie, which weaves the stories of a set of San Fernando Valley denizens, only begins to catch its breath at the point where Stanley Spector appears on the game show “What Do Kids Know?” The soundtrack, almost omnipresent until then, actually cuts out. Until then, Anderson’s camera has been darting, spinning, chasing, all while his actors are delivering their lines like hammer blows. Every character’s emotional register seems dialed up to 11, with two in particular, the ones played by Melora Walters and Julianne Moore, constantly on the verge of nervous breakdowns.

It’s exhausting and no doubt purposely so. Anderson wants his movie to be inescapable, in your face. It’s clear that he’s gunning to pull the same emotions from the viewer that are being splattered all over the screen. And sometimes he succeeds. This film stayed with me for a long time since I first saw it, at the Courthouse theater in Arlington, 12 years ago. Anderson’s gusto was something to behold. It’s like he was writing in only capital letters. The bravura opening sequence, set to Aimee Mann’s version of “One,” is the cinematic equivalent to a slugger calling his shot before the pitch is thrown.

The best of the lot are, surprisingly, Tom Cruise, who delivers the performance of his life and somehow makes you empathize with him, a feat I’m not sure he’s ever replicated as well in any other film. (Part of it surely had to be his being liberated from the all-controlling clutches of Stanley Kubrick while making Eyes Wide Shut immediately before his work here.) and Walters, who simply personifies misery and addiction. She shines in Magnolia, but she’s also the toughest to watch.

I felt when the film came out that Moore’s character was too flat, too undeveloped, a one-note and I still feel that way—and I never found William H. Macy’s storyline particularly compelling. Instead, it merely seems pathetic. The virtues of the film lie in Cruise’s over-the-top-and-then-some performance, the interaction between Walters and John C. Reilly’s cop, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s humanity. The frogs, they don’t bug me. The singing to Aimee Mann? Fine with it.  But Moore and Macy drag the film down a note.

Critics like to compare the film to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which was also set in L.A. and had a similar structure, but they play very differently. Altman is distant, analytical, a sociologist. Anderson’s more of a puppet master. While the emotions are heightened, they somehow feel less authentic, less organic. You can’t help be conscious of the frenzy being whipped up for your benefit. And I am struck now how odd the final shot is now, with Walters character smiling not at Reilly’s Jim Kurring, who is standing to her left, but to the camera. What is Anderson trying to tell us with that? That the film is a synthetic construction, that a camera is indeed in the room? It’s puzzling.

That doesn’t mean Magnolia isn’t its own kind of achievement. Anderson’s sheer audacity, his desire to wring everything he can out of every frame, his drunken love for the possibility of cinema, is impossible to dismiss. He’s high on his own talent. Who wouldn’t want to feel like that?



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