Life In Bloom

In 'Magnolia,' director Paul Thomas Anderson uses verve and panache to create rich characters going about the everyday business of being human.

January 07, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

A heroic sadness weaves its way through "Magnolia," Paul Thomas Anderson's oversized musing on alienation, connectedness and random acts of spiritual grace.

While not as fully realized as Anderson's last movie, "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" is filmed with the same skillful abandon, and takes many more artistic risks. Throwing out all conventional notions of plot and narrative coherence, Anderson instead indulges his love of character. The result is a movie as fascinating for its flaws as for its considerable successes.

"Magnolia" takes place over the course of one day in Southern California's San Fernando Valley -- a place of sub-stardom and self-invention -- where a group of sad and desperate characters is facing down issues of life and death.

Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) madly scrambles to find painkillers while her husband Earl (Jason Robards) lies dying. His only company is a room full of dogs and a nurse named Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Across town, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a motivational speaker who heads an organization called "Seduce and Destroy" (his toll-free number is 1-800-TAME-HER), spits out his vulgar, misogynist spiel in a series of TV ads and speaking gigs.

Police officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) discovers a murder in the course of a routine domestic dispute investigation. At the same time, the former star of a quiz show called "What Do Kids Know?" (William H. Macy) runs amok at the consumer electronics store where he now works. Meanwhile, this season's quiz show champ, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), copes with the pressures of child stardom while the show's host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), tries to resuscitate his relationship with his estranged daughter (Melora Walters).

Before the day is out, these characters' stories will intersect in unexpected ways, culminating in an event of apocalyptic mysticism. But Anderson is less interested in the mechanics of how they meet -- or in some cases, don't meet -- than in their behavior, which he observes with the loving scrutiny of a caring clinician.

"Magnolia" begins with a prologue about the role of fate, chance and coincidence in determining our lives, but that theme emerges as merely Anderson's conceit for watching his characters in extremis, as each of them comes to personal crisis and, finally, some kind of peace.

There is no "story" driving "Magnolia," but Anderson succeeds in creating a great deal of narrative tension, chiefly through his use of music, which accompanies nearly every moment of the film. The movie opens with a terrific version of "One" sung by Aimee Mann, and her songs back up most of the film's key scenes. At one point, the characters even begin to sing along with the soundtrack in a sequence that would be cheesy if it weren't directed with such brio.

Whether he's using Mann's songs or an aria from "Carmen," Anderson clearly aspires to operatic heights with "Magnolia." Music constantly vies with the dialogue for the audience's attention, and every character has his or her spoken aria, wherein observations are shared and advice proffered. Robards, who gives an eerily convincing performance as the dying man, delivers a particularly breathtaking treatise on the uselessness of regret.

"Magnolia" may not be great opera -- it's even too sprawling and episodic and absurd for that -- but it does have its moments. Cruise hasn't given a performance this incendiary in years, and watching him strut and glower in this wickedly funny turn is to be reminded that, given the right material and director, he can actually act. As the twin moral centers of "Magnolia," Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly provide an undergirding of quiet strength to an enterprise that otherwise seems in danger of spinning off its axis.

Other elements don't work as well. The quiz show passages are excruciatingly long, as is Macy's barroom rant, and the film's climactic sequence injects a distracting air of unreality to an otherwise closely observed slice of life. And the music gets a bit exhausting; you keep wanting Anderson to turn down the radio and just let the characters talk (maybe he should take Jim Kurring's little speech about the dangers of loud music a little more to heart).

Still, there is undeniable power in "Magnolia," in which small moments of truth are given epic gravitas, not just by Anderson's adroit cinematic style (no one's camera is more restless or inquisitive), but by the wisdom and compassion of the characters he creates.

It's gratifying to see a young director who can use every film technique at his disposal with verve, and yet who prefers to use them simply to watch people go about the spellbinding business of being human.

`Magnolia'

Starring Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Melinda Dillon, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated R (strong language, drug use, sexuality and some violence)

Running time 188 minutes

Released by New Line Cinema

Sun score: ***

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