Saturday, February 8, 2014

Special 500th Movie Review: Magnolia - a Modern Classic From My Collection

In choosing a movie to watch to mark my 500th full length review, I went with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia because, along with Pulp Fiction and The Godfather, it’s one of my top three movies of all time. By that I mean I consider it not only a great film, but that I find it endlessly watchable. Incidentally, I chose it several weeks prior to, and started watching the night before, Philip Seymour Hoffman's death. It was merely a thematically fitting coincidence. I have tried to watch it about once a year since it came out in 1999 and have mostly kept up on that vow. I think I may have watched it twice during my five years in Spain and possibly only this time since returning two and a half years ago, but I am intimately familiar with the movie. I also chose it because so much time has passed since last we met.


For me, it is Anderson’s greatest achievement. There Will Be Blood and The Master are great movies that I admire deeply, but I have no passion for them. Anderson spins so many yarns and keeps so many balls in the air in Magnolia that you have to marvel at the way he hooks you and creates such powerful emotional heights and nadirs. Boogie Nights was great before Magnolia, but Anderson took that narrative style to a new level. Robert Altman pioneered the multiple character narrative on film. He is a clear and obvious influence on Anderson, especially Magnolia. But where Altman was interested in improvisation and capturing the most interesting dialogue floating around in a room full of speaking characters, Anderson’s films are precisely written and developed. The style is tighter and more controlled and the result is complex, exciting, and engrossing.

It’s hard to know where to begin talking about Magnolia. It’s short on plot, but never on things happening. It has a clear dramatic arc as all the characters are introduced and nominally developed, then expanded gradually. After that the film and all the characters fall into their own emotional sinkholes until, finally, many of them are lifted out by resolution and a glimmer of hope. Anderson’s story weaves together nine major characters who connect and interlock in sometimes surprising and, ultimately, coincidental ways. Following a Ricky Jay-narrated intro describing three bizarre historical stories (none are based on actual fact, but are common urban lore) that illustrate remarkable cosmic coincidences, each major character is introduced in a flurry of fast-paced morning activity. We catch glimpses of Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) selling his “Seduce and Destroy” plan via infomercial while Claudia (Melora Walters) takes a guy home from a bar. Meanwhile a TV spot describes thirty years of the “What Do Kids Know” game show hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) frantically gets a prescription from her psychiatrist. Linda’s husband Earl (Jason Robards) lies dying in bed as his daytime nurse, Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), arrives to tend to him. Nine-year old Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), current reigning champion on the game show, gets ready for school under the overbearing hand of his father. Former Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) gets fitted for braces, and LAPD officer Jim (John C. Reilly) heads out on patrol.

Finally, the pacing slows down enough to meet each of these people for a longer period of time and we look at the clock and we’re forty-five minutes in. It’s incredible that Anderson takes that much time just to give the most cursory of introductions to his characters and that you just don’t feel like so much time has passed. From there the narrative arc and tension just build with everyone’s stories heading for possible disaster. Anderson’s direction is simply flawless. He’s not only capable of drawing out incredible and heartbreaking performances from his actors, but he has such control over the whole picture. The vision is that of a man who had a clear idea of how he wanted this story to develop. It’s a marvel when you think about the technical skill in terms of editing to keep everything within the realm of sustainability. With so many characters moving and so many little subplots coming together, he has to shuffle things around, cutting from scene to scene, character to character. Amazingly, it all makes sense and when we return to a scene after sometimes a ten minute absence we can easily fall right back into the emotional core of what was happening. That’s because every subplot is pitched at similar emotional points simultaneously.

Strangely enough, Magnolia is one of the saddest movies that I enjoy watching repeatedly. Every one of the stories is filled with melancholy. Donnie experiences unrequited love with Brad the bartender, loses his crummy job at an electronics store, and decides to steal from his former employer. Jimmy is dying of cancer and decides to drink himself into a stupor before going on live TV. Claudia is a drug addict who just can’t get it together because of a family secret revealed late in the movie. Earl is on his deathbed and has no contact with his estranged son. And on and on. Every character is, in his own isolated right, deserving of our sympathy and many are also deserving of scorn. They could all get a movie of their own with some combination of the other eight characters serving as supporting players. That split in how we are made to feel about these characters plays into the astute question Jim asks near the end of the film: “What can we forgive?”

Anderson develops themes and characters almost like he’s a novelist and not a filmmaker. Forgiveness and love are the two overarching themes and they are developed mostly through the prism of parent-child relationships. “The sins of the father will be visited upon the sons,” Donnie mutters, quoting Exodus. More aptly, the behaviors of the parent will be cruelly felt, and internalized by the child, whether it’s a parent who steals his child’s money, or who pushes to boost his own sense of vanity, or who abandons his teenage son in his greatest hour of need, or who sexually abuses a daughter.

This film was a real departure in a couple of ways from the realism style that most narrative films, and even Anderson’s films, normally adhere to. He breaks with convention first for a montage of all the major characters singing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” It had a jarring effect the first time I saw it to see each of the nine people in succession singing a song that (most of them) couldn’t possibly be listening to. It’s a stylistic move that just about breaks the fourth wall (the only time I can think that Anderson does so in any of his films – save the very last second of this one), but it’s a way of calling the viewer’s attention back to the fact that we’re witnessing something not only built of extraordinary circumstances (these people all have this song on the brain right now?), but also artificially created by a writer. To an extent, the song break, while clearly dividing the film’s two major emotional segments, butters us up for the completely unexpected finale which has been alluded to throughout with various “Easter Eggs” announcing the Bible verse of Exodus 8:2. If you don’t know what’s coming, then don’t read that verse. The shock of what befalls the characters is one of Magnolia’s greatest assets and I recall the moment as shocking and befuddling, but somehow making great sense in retrospect. It’s the great unifying event that ties everything and everyone together.

There is so much to love about this movie, but what stands out most for me is the acting. How good is Julianne Moore? She’s never less than amazing, but watch her fall to pieces in the pharmacy. How good is Philip Seymour Hoffman? Again, always wonderful, but watch him when he first calls “Seduce and Destroy” to get a hold of Frank. The compassion and empathy he exhibits is unlike anything he’s really known for. How good is Tom Cruise? It’s easy to dismiss his Oscar nomination for this as a movie star working for scale and getting noticed for a crying scene. But forget the crying at Earl’s deathbed – let’s look at his routine at the “Seduce and Destroy” seminar after he returns from the interviewer who called him out on his phony family history. Yes, Cruise gives the flashiest and most foul-mouthed performance, but watch how he registers both the Frank Mackey false persona he’s created at the same time he’s suffering Jack’s (the character’s given name) personal struggle beneath the surface. How good is Philip Baker Hall? Watch the scene where he starts fumbling his lines and coming apart on live television. Has any actor ever handled lines like that – essentially a very theatrical style – with the naturally graceful delivery of Hall? How good is William H. Macy? Watch and listen to him at the end when he says, “I really do have love to give, I just don’t know where to put it.” Heartbreaking. How good is John C. Reilly? Watch how he’s so patronizing as a cop, how he can’t help coming across as a total jerk even when he’s truly the kindest soul in the movie (after nurse Phil). How good is Jason Robards? Well, the man was actually dying of cancer during filming and still delivers one of the film’s best monologues when he talks about life’s regrets. How good is Melora Walters? She holds her entire performance at that moment right before a person breaks down into uncontrollable tears. She also gets the film’s final shot and most uplifting moment. Claudia is probably the film’s saddest character, and the one most in need of love and redemption, but as Reilly’s officer Jim comes into her bedroom to talk to her softly beneath the beautiful Mann tune “Save Me,” Anderson holds the camera on her. Jim’s lines are barely audible, but Walters’ face shows us everything. Then, at the very second before the song breaks to its more upbeat second half, Walters looks directly into camera and smiles. It’s an expression that melts me every time I see it, but you have to endure the nearly three hours of preceding misery to get there. But oh that payoff is just gorgeous and uplifting and fills you with all the hope you need after such a killer movie.

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