In the San Fernando Valley, a selection seemingly disconnected group of people are going through some fairly heavy moments in their live. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying in bed, being cared for by his nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is tasked with finding Earl’s estranged son. Earl’s much-younger trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is struggling to deal with the imminent death of her husband. Officer Jim (John C. Reilly) is called to investigate a disturbance, which leads to a potential murder case. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a genius child contestant on the TV Game Show What Do Kids Know?, and is just a few days away from breaking that show’s record of most consecutive wins. Jimmy Gator hosts the show, and has done for decades, but has just been diagnosed with cancer, with just months to live. Jimmy’s daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), has a difficult relationship with her father, as well as a cocaine habit and various other issues in her life, whilst Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former child star contestant on the aforementioned TV show, has seen his fame squandered and life thrown in turmoil when he loses his job at an electronics store. Finally, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) runs a self-help seminar on men who wish to be more successful with ladies. Mid-show, he gives an interview to a reporter (April Grace) that doesn’t necessarily go as he plans. All these stories, and more besides, will become interwoven over the course of the film’s next 24 hours.
When I look back at the time when I feel I began to appreciate movies for being more than just something to do for a couple of hours, or as background noise whilst I completed my schoolwork, the era in which I really started to pay attention to them was around the time I first saw Magnolia. It was a period in my life in which I discovered such gems as The Usual Suspects, Fargo, American Beauty and Se7en, all of which I’d class amongst my favourite films, and I’m happy to place Magnolia high on that list too. This is a film that showed me that so much more could be done with movies than a single, straightforward narrative. They could move you, effect you emotionally, take you inside the mind of the characters involved, showing you viewpoints and opinions you’d never see otherwise. Magnolia does all this, and much more, and all to an incredibly layered and wonderful degree.
Seeing as Magnolia is one of those films that I love so much and am really too close to in order to be able to provide a properly critical review, I’m going to resort to a tried and tested tactic of rambling through my notes on why I love it, until I reach a point at which I feel I’ve written enough, when I’ll just kind of stop writing and tag a 10/10 at the bottom. Sound good? No? Well tough. If you want in depth film criticism and unbiased, level headed judgement, I’m afraid you’ve strayed very far from your path, and I wish you the best of luck in finding your way back.
The cast of Magnolia is just ridiculous; far too deep to even begin wading through. It’s possibly worth noting that when I first saw this I’m pretty sure it was the first film in which I either saw or at least noticed pretty much every actor involved, even the prolific likes of Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore. I’d probably seen Philip Seymour Hoffman in Twister, but he plays such vastly different characters in these two movies that I couldn’t possibly have twigged that these were played by the same person. In fact, these past few weeks of Paul Thomas Anderson-viewing have really depressed the heck out of me that he’s no longer around. Hoffman was probably the best actor of his generation, as can be seen from the wide array of characters he could believably play in the five PTA films he appeared in. Compare his brash, out-of-his-depth hooligan gambler in Hard Eight to the pathetic, disillusioned Scotty J. in Boogie Nights. Then look at Magnolia‘s Phil Pharma, a far more restrained, ordinary, decent guy. Go from that to his explosive small town Bond villain in Punch-Drunk Love, then look at his phenomenal work in The Master. Has any other actor put in such a diverse range of pure acting for one director than Hoffman for Anderson? I don’t think so. It’s fucking depressing, is what it is.
Magnolia‘s opening is one of my favourite ever, with Ricky Jay providing a factual, level account of three events that revolve around coincidence – a man being murdered by three men whose surnames match his address, a diver being found dead in a tree, and a kind-of-but-not-really unsuccessful suicide. This sets up the entirety of the three hours to follow – these stories have a bizarre kind of humour to them – particularly the cartoon sports-play lines drawn over the suicide one – but are at heart depressing, all including death of some kind, and are almost too fantastical to believe. As a child I was a fan of the Darwin Award books, detailing the more humorous or interesting ways in which people who are easily labelled as stupid have removed themselves from the gene pool, and these three stories would fit well amongst those tomes, hence why they’ve always appealed to me. It would have been easy to omit these stories from an already very lengthy run time, but I’ve always felt they help put the viewer into the right mindset for the film: prepare to be saddened, but in an enjoyable, interesting way. Also, these intros are just as star-studded as the rest of the film, with the likes of Patton Oswalt, Miriam Margolyes, Pat Healy and Neil Flynn all cropping up in there.
The real narrative begins with a montage of sublime character establishment, with our nine focal points being depicted, for the most part without a great deal of dialogue, in such a way that we absolutely know exactly who they are, in just a few seconds apiece. Whether it’s Stanley dragging four bags of books to school whilst being berated by his utter shit of a father (Michael Bowen, more on him later) or Jimmy Gator having sex with some random clearly-not-his-wife woman in his dressing room, you get a great sense of exactly who these people are. The greatest of these, possibly because more time is spent establishing him as we flow into the first part of the story, is the introduction of John C. Reilly’s Officer Jim. He clearly leads a simple, solitary existence as we see the start of his day, going about his morning routine in his small apartment, exercising alone, eating alone, praying alone, laughing alone at his TV, all whilst we listen to his own personal ad for a dating site. From the hideous self motivation poster on the wall about his workout bench to how no-one is sat anywhere near him at the police briefing, this is a guy who lives very much in the shadows, and not necessarily by choice. His interaction with his first call-out of the day, a large, angry black woman, is also just perfect. A little stereotypical, perhaps, but hilarious nonetheless. It’s clear there’s something amiss in her property, and she’s nothing but hostile towards him, to comical effect. I love the delivery of “I don’t even know no loud crash,” and when Jim finds something she’d have preferred not to be uncovered, there’s a swift rebuttal of “That ain’t mine!” There’s so many moments like this throughout the film, that are all shot so perfectly and play out so well, it’s easy for many of them to pass by unremarked upon, and this is one of my favourites.
However, I can’t mention character introductions without spending a little time on Mr. Frank T.J. Mackey, as wonderfully portrayed by Tom Cruise. In 1999, Cruise had played little else other than a pure, good, leading man in the likes of Mission Impossible, Top Gun and A Few Good Men. He’d played flawed characters, sure, with the likes of Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man springing to mind, but none that you really felt compelled to throttle within seconds of encountering them. Then along comes Mackey, the epitome of egotistical, chauvinistic, posturing cinematic arseholes. The kind of person you desperately hope doesn’t exist, but whom you know is out there, somewhere, completely oblivious to how the majority of the rest of the world would deeply like them to spontaneously combust in a shower of testosterone, sweat and Lynx . Mackey’s entrance is one of the all-time greats, because it’s not just his introduction to us, but to a crowd of screaming fans at the start of his self-help seminar. He’s got the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme blaring, a spotlight illuminates to reveal is highlighted silhouette, before another one shows the rest of him, slowly raising his arms to a triple bicep pump, before the arms come back down, then go back up again. This is a guy fully motivated by his own sense of self importance, which is utterly destroyed when the audio is cut just a couple of bars short, and the whole thing culminates in the world’s least impressive banner being unfurled behind him. From that intro it should be followed by a firework display that lasts at least 45 minutes, maybe a song and dance number with at least 60% of a full orchestra and several dozen backing dancers, or at least a big net full of balloons and confetti being released over the audience. Nope, just a banner, unrolling like the world’s saddest swiss roll filled with the desperate hopes and dreams of sad, disillusioned men whose only desire in life is to have meaningless sex with a girl who doesn’t know they even exist. Also, Mackey is doing all this whilst wearing an oh-so-shiny leather waistcoat. I sincerely hope that was made for him and isn’t available to purchase somewhere.
For reference, I’ve reached the end of my first page of notes, of which I’ve got seven and a half, plus one sketchy diagram of how everyone ends up being connected together, so I’m going to jump around a little bit more now. What do I love about some of the other characters I haven’t gone into detail about yet? Well, how about how Quiz Kid Donnie Smith is always, always listening to Gabrielle’s Dreams Can Come True in his car, and even listens to it in his neighbour’s car, late in the film? Or that his boss is played by Boogie Nights alum Alfred Molina in one all-too-brief scene? And that Donnie was struck by lightning once out in Taho, because why wouldn’t he be? I love the way Officer Jim, upon falling in love when Claudia opens her front door, drops his police baton down the stairs and had to hurriedly retrieve it before she notices. He’s a pretty terrible policeman, but he’s such a lovely bloke.
Julianne Moore’s arc has always been one of the weaker elements for me, and I’ve never really been able to pinpoint by. I like her as an actress – she’s from the Jurassic Park saga, so that’s a given – but here her role isn’t as showy as everyone else’s, and when she breaks down, it often feels forced and melodramatic. Her breakdown in the pharmacy (at Pat Healy) when the employees start judging her over the prescription she is collecting is devastating, but never rings true. That, however, is pretty much my only flaw within the entire film, and it’s one I have to dig for. Oh, and I get annoyed at the fact that there’s so many people around Stanley, pretending to care about him, and not one of them is able to just give him a pot to piss in. Jesus. I rarely yell at my TV, but that incenses me every damn time.
The relationship between the bed-ridden Earl and his carer, Phil, is one I’ve not paid a great deal of attention to before. It’s very clear that Phil has been caring for Earl for a long time now, and they’re very used to one another’s company. Phil disregards Earl’s swearing, knowing it isn’t to be taken seriously, and is just the way of an older generation, dealing with a current predicament. The tender moment where Earl pretends to smoke a cigarette, and Phil pretends to light it? That’s just great. There’s so many moments like that peppered throughout the film, it really rewards repeat viewings. The style of the film takes a few artistic turns towards the end – the group sing-along to Aimee Mann’s Wise Up, for example, or the weather conditions of the final act – but I’ve never had a problem with these. In fact, they may be some of the strongest elements of the film. They show that life isn’t always ordinary, things like this do happen, and if something odd happens in your life, chances are you aren’t the only person it’s affecting.
Oh, I forgot, Stanley’s Dad. I fucking hate that guy. There’s some despicable people in this film, but none so unrepentantly repugnant as Rick Spector. His son is a genius, spending hours every day studying and learning and bettering himself, and all Rick can think of is how much money it’s going to make him, through fame, endorsements and just plain old cash winnings. Sickening.
So, yeah, I love this film. I can understand why some people might not, and I can see why the length would put people who aren’t immediately on board off giving it a second shot any time soon, but I think it’s worth your time, even if it does use a lot of it.
Choose Film 10/10
In my experience, the dividing line on this film is the frogs. Either you buy into the frogs as something that happens or it destroys the film completely.
I buy the frogs. I buy the film entire, actually. There’s just so much here and so much that can be dug out of it over and over. It’s what filmmaking ought to be–one of those movies where I can’t pick a favorite character or a most important moment or even a central theme because they’re all great, all important, all central.
The mark of any great movie is that it doesn’t feel like its length, and Magnolia never feels like 3 hours. Never.
Hurrah! Agreement! I thought you were going to come on here and slate the film, it’s a very polarising film, it seems.
There are very few movies that I’ve watched more than once in the theaters, especially ones that are three hours. Magnolia is the rare exception. I saw it and then went back the next week. It still holds up after a lot of viewings too. It’s just brilliant, and I’m glad you share my excitement for it. When I’ve heard smart film fans dismiss it, I’m stunned. This is a movie made for people who love movies!
It always annoyed me in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when Kevin Smith showed his disdain for PTA by calling a brattish character’s online handle MagnoliaFan. That made me dislike Smith a bit, despite previously really enjoying his work and him in general. I don’t understand the hate either, I think Magnolia is pretty much perfect.
I’m with you this – I absolutely love this film too although I haven’t seen it for a while. It’s high time for a rewatch.
That’s the biggest problem with Magnolia; it’s not the easiest film to find the time to watch it all that often.
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