A masterful work of the cinematic arts or a self-indulgent day-in-our-lives concept movie?
Sharply dividing critics, Oscar hopeful "Magnolia" starts promisingly and continues to surprise throughout an inexcusably long running time, but it's a noble endeavor undone by the glaring shortcomings in filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson
's ambitious vision of the here and now.
The New Line release has a strong Tom Cruise
performance to fuel interest, along with the freaky climactic storm sequence, but too many other factors indicate a tepid boxoffice performance. Draining, but not in the unforgettably relevant and moving way intended, "Magnolia" asks a lot of an audience -- to witness the pain and frustration of dying parents, shattered children and other universally recognizable unfortunates.
For three hours, Anderson ("Boogie Nights") and an elephantine cast furiously -- almost belligerently -- tear apart a dozen major characters during one odd day and night in the baleful San Fernando Valley. Anderson's often potent skills as a filmmaker -- how he composes sequences and always seems firmly in control of the roving camera -- are undermined by his uneven accomplishments as a dramatist.
The film is strongest in the first half, before the various story lines all reach the crisis point seemingly at the same time, with Anderson unleashing the performers in an admittedly unique crescendo of communal misery and climatic redemption. The ending's a heck of a thing to behold, for sure. Similarly, "Magnolia"'s memorable prologue sets up the theme of weird coincidence in everyday life that helps explain the one-of-a-kind climax with its incredible deluge of frogs.
But before the bittersweetly upbeat closing song -- the film's most daring moment, with the diverse characters all joining in -- there is much drama to work through, starting with dying Earl Partridge (Jason Robards
), his devastated young wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) and sloppy male nurse Phil Philip Seymour Hoffman
). Earl's fervent wish is to see his estranged son one last time. Frank Mackey (Cruise), a burningly macho giver of seminars on how to seduce women, is that son. It becomes Phil's self-appointed mission to track him down, while Linda suffers a self-imposed living damnation when she realizes she truly loves Earl.
Successful game show producer and host Jimmy Gator Philip Baker Hall
) is another bad father whose days are numbered, and his past misdeeds come back to almost destroy him. His wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon
), is committed to standing by him, but their daughter Claudia (Melora Walters
) is a wispy coke addict who screams at Jimmy when he confronts her with the news of his terminal illness. A lost soul if there ever was one, Rose is later gently approached romantically by upright policeman Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) when he's summoned by neighbors because her stereo is playing too loud.
Jimmy Gator's long-running hit show is called "What Do Kids Know?" and another major plot line follows the taping of what could be his last appearance. Pitting brainy kids against adults in teams, the star performer this day is young Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), whose actor father Rick (Michael Bowen) has pushed him hard. Headed for an unusually cruel form of public humiliation, which not even his father comforts him over, Stanley is in danger of becoming another Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former quiz show star who steadily unravels over the course of the movie.
Using several original songs by Aimee Mann
, Anderson weaves a complex group portrait that becomes so singularly downbeat that only a magical-but-real plot device like the earthquake in "Short Cuts" can jar things back into place, emotionally as well as intellectually. Meanwhile, practically every character is carried to the edge of the proverbial waterfall and then goes over, resulting in a mosaic of actors trying to bare their souls in confessional monologues and hair-raising epiphanies of many varieties.
Not all the characters or situations are believable, but Anderson's biggest misstep is the redundant approach of the material. Just The Partridge Family
story would have made a dandy movie. Viewers who get into the film's groove do have many showstopping scenes by Cruise, Robards, newcomer Blackman and Moore to savor. April Grace
, as a polite but persistent news reporter, is an excellent foil for Cruise in their many charged scenes together.
New Line Cinema
A Joanne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Co. production
Writer-director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producer: Joanne Sellar
Executive producers: Michael De Luca
, Lynn Harris
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designers: William Arnold, Mark Bridges
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Music: Jon Brion
Casting: Cassandra Kulukundis
Earl Partridge: Jason Robards
Linda Partridge: Julianne Moore
Frank Mackey: Tom Cruise
Stanley Spector: Jeremy Blackman
Rick Spector: Michael Bowen
Donnie Smith: William.H. Macy
Jimmy Gator: Philip Baker Hall
Rose Gator: Melinda Dillon
Claudia Wilson Gator: Melora Walters
Officer Jim Kurring: John C. Reilly
Phil Parma: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Gwenovier: April Grace
Running time -- 188 minutes
MPAA rating: R