Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (1999)

3. Magnolia

Following the praise that greeted “Boogie Nights,” the head of New Line Cinema told Paul Thomas Anderson that they would finance and release any movie he created next. Anderson's initial plan was to create an intimate, shorter film. It would be intersecting portraits about a few characters. Instead, the script grew and grew. Julianne Moore would describe the screenplay as book length. It was a deeply noncommercial project. The resulting film, “Magnolia,” would be divisive. Some would hail it as a masterpiece. Others would describe it as melodramatic. Anderson once called it the best movie he would ever be involved with. More recently, he's said it's too long and needs to be cut down. Well, “Magnolia” is really long but it also happens to be an incredible film.

Set in and around Magnolia Blvd in Los Angeles, the film follows a group of seemingly unrelated characters. Jim Kurring is a self-described good cop who wishes to find love. A noise complain leads him to the apartment of Claudia, a woman fighting a cocaine addiction. Her father, Jimmy, is the host of a children's game show and has just discovered he's dying of cancer. The show's latest success, a boy genius named Stanley, has a mental crisis while on camera. The show's producer, Big Earl, is also dying. Linda, his wife addicted to prescription drugs, married him for his money but actually fell in love with him. Earl's dying wish is to be reunited with his estranged son, Frank, who now calls himself T.J. Mackey and runs sexist “pick-up artist” style self-help seminars. Donnie Smith, meanwhile, is a former champion from the kids' show who is obsessed with his teeth and was recently fired from his job. These different people are brought together when frogs fall from the sky.

“Magnolia” begins with a summation of some of its theme, in a way that would presumptuous in most other films. Three scenarios are presented. One is a true unsolved murder case from the turn of the century. The second is a known urban legend, about a dead diver appearing in a forest fire. The third is a hypothetical case that only exist to show different legal consequences. Presenting all three segments together, narrated by actor/magician/Anderson regular Ricky Jay, the film is laying down one of its main points. That “these things happen” for a reason, that chance and coincidence are forces that bring people together. Moreover, that opening sequence is so gracefully assembled that it starts this large film off on a ambitious note.

However, chance and coincidence is just one thematic layer of “Magnolia.” The aspect that truly connects the disparate cast of characters is that each one is desperate for love and forgiveness. (One could probably make the case that a hunger for love and acceptance is the unifying theme in all of P.T.'s films. But I digress.) Jim yearns for a wholesome love, to define a life that strives for wholesomeness. Donnie, while intoxicated, rambles about how he deserves love, how love he has to give. Jimmy's wife wrestles with how much she's willing to love her husband, as does Linda. Yet, before these individuals can love and be loved, they must forgive themselves and others. Jimmy hopes to be forgiven by his daughter. Frank is asked if he can ever forgive his father. If Jim and Claudia can let each other into their lives, they must forgive themselves for their mistakes.

Relationships between children and their parents, especially fathers, is another important aspect inside “Magnolia.” Consider little Stanley. His father, played viciously by Richard Bowen, pushes him too hard. While watching his son on the game show, he casually explains to the other parents about the subtle ways he abuses his son. One of the reasons Stanley freezes up on stage is because of his dad's manipulative abuse. Frank resents his father so much, for walking out on his mother and him once she became sick, that he denies his dad is still alive. As the film goes on, we discover that Jimmy and Claudia's relationship is strained because he might have sexually abused her as a child. He genuinely can't remember if he did or not. Throughout the film, we meet damaged adults who were once damaged children. Actions ripple throughout history and abuse ripples the hardest.

One of the explanations provided for “Magnolia's” vague title is that magnolia bark has been presented as a quack medical cure for cancer. Indeed, cancer is another reoccurring story element throughout “Magnolia.” An early shot brilliantly illustrates Big Earl's disease by flashing x-rays of his cancerous lungs on-screen. Jimmy's need to reconnect with his daughter is spurned on by his sudden diagnosis of bone marrow cancer. We learn that Frank's mother died of breast cancer. If the title was derived from the fabled cure for cancer, other treatments for disease are discussed throughout the film. Claudia self-medicates with cocaine. Linda abuses the medication she receives for Earl's illness. Both Donnie and Jimmy drink too much. Literal cancer seems to be the manifestation of the inner sadness people feel in “Magnolia.” Their use of drug is another desperate attempt to fix the dissatisfaction they feel with their lives.

As an ensemble film, “Magnolia” is stacked with a collection of phenomenal performances. They come in a few varieties. Some of the performances are quietly emotional. John C. Reilly plays Jim as an eccentric man, prone to performing long monologues to himself. Reilly hides Jim's dissatisfaction with his own life by projecting a professional bluster. Yet Reilly gives us peaks at the cop's inner vulnerability and self-doubt. Philip Baker Hall plays Jimmy as a man wracked by pain, both physical and mental. Hall shows the character's frustration and uncertainty with his disease and past. One of the best performances in the film is one of the most understated. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Phil Parma, Big Earl's devoted nurse. Hoffman plays Phil as a deeply empathetic man, dedicated to fulfilling his patient's last wish. Phil is just a nice guy, a sweet, giving man, a refreshingly uncomplicated person motivated by compassion.

If some of the performances in “Magnolia” veer towards the quiet, other performances are far more bombastic. Melora Walters' Claudia probably snorts fifty lines during “Magnolia's” three hour run time. Fittingly, Walters' performance is wired and high-strung, spending most of the film in a highly nervous state. William H. Macy, as Donnie, is frequently rambling. We discovers Donnie's brain was scrambled after he was struck by lightning. Because of this, Macy plays Donnie as an unstable person who veers between a mile-a-minute rambling and deep bouts of melancholy. After being powerful in “Boogie Nights,” Julianne Moore returns with another showstopping performance. Linda is in the midst of a mental breakdown, exacerbated by her drug use and the trauma of her husband's incoming death. Moore plays the role as all emotions, messy and unhinged but deeply, unavoidably human.

As fantastic as “Magnolia's” ensemble cast is, two performers rise above the others. Jason Robards plays Big Earl, a dying man. Robards, at the time, was also dying. “Magnolia” would be the actor's final film. Robards spends all of the film in bed, infirm, only occasionally speaking clearly. Yet one of the most powerful moments in “Magnolia” revolves around a stream-of-consciousness monologue by Robards, about regrets and the length of life. As his estranged son, Tom Cruise gives the film's most iconic performance. That couch-jumping energy Cruise brings to every role is embraced in T.J. Mackey, a sweltering gonad of a human that is always performing. Yet Cruise also displays the darkness often floating under his perfect smile. His status as a heartthrob is subverted, by the disgusting sexism the character spews. As we learn more about his life, the sheer ugliness of Mackey's hyper-macho persona is revealed. Finally, before the film finishes, the character sheds his disguise, revealing the sad, pathetic, weeping, wounded child inside. It's the kind of role that reminds you why Cruise became such a huge star in the first place.

There's an enigmatic element to “Magnolia.” The movie is rift with mysteries. The script is peppered with symbols. The works of Charles Fort, an author who write about the paranormal, are referenced throughout the film. This builds towards the last act, when frogs rain from the sky, a phenomenon Fort wrote about. Yet the rain of frogs is also a reference to the Biblical Exodus, which the film also nods towards repeatedly. The Magnolia flower can briefly be glimpsed in the background during many scenes, another possible hint towards understanding the title. Even stranger, Masonic symbols also crop up a few times. Ricky Jay's character wears a Mason's ring. A key doorway has an undeniable pyramid shape. What do these symbols mean? How do they feed into “Magnolia's” central thesis?

Some have interpreted the Exodus references as being about abused children – slaves of sorts – being freed from their masters, their parents. To me, these objects add to movie's ideas about chance and coincidence. The rain of frogs is what connects the different characters in the last act. If not for the unexpected downpour, their lives would've been different. The narrator argues there are no true coincidences, that everything does happen for a reason. It must be pointed out that the narrator is voiced by Ricky Jay, the same actor who wears the Masonic ring. Which seems to connect the religious allusions and references to the Masonic All-Seeing Eye of God. If the film's symbols are arguing for the existence of a God, perhaps this also connects with the theme of lonely, unloved people. If a higher power is watching out for them, they can't be too unloved, can they? Or maybe the Masonic elements points towards the construction of the universe, that our world is a designed machine where every action has a purpose. I suspect everyone who watches “Magnolia” could come up with their own meaning.

Anderson's direction is also a fine-tuned machine. The trademark long shots are utilized many times. The film begins with an astonishing series of single shot that introduce all the main character, flowing from one scene to the next. Perhaps fitting the Biblical subtext of the story, Anderson also assumes a heaven-bound view, looking down on the characters. One especially notable shot involves a slow zoom in on a character, reeling over a commode. Sometimes, he takes the opposite approach. One moment has the camera peering up out of an open vault, looking up at William H. Macy's character. That deliberate sense of movement, the long shots and slow zooms, is seen in all the scenes. This is another subconscious way to link the different characters.

While writing “Magnolia,” P.T. listened non-stop to the music of Aimee Mann. Mann's music heavily influenced the film, as Claudia was directly inspired by Mann's song, “Deathly.” Mann's music informs much of “Magnolia.” The film begins with her aching cover of “One,” establishing the theme of loneliness. As “Wise Up” plays mid-way through the film, each of the characters are shown singing portions of the song. Which is another way to connect the otherwise unrelated cast members. The film concludes with “Save Me,” a gorgeously plaintive number about people reaching out for connection and love. In other words, it's perfect for the film. When Mann's music isn't controlling the flow of “Magnolia,” Jon Brion's driving, intense orchestral music directs the film's mixture of tone.

“Magnolia” is a sprawling, ambitious motion picture that tackles big themes, fills its run time with ambiguous symbols, and features a collection of brilliant performances. A movie this long and difficult to digest was never going to be very successful at the box office. “Magnolia” just broke even with global receipts. Despite this, the film's critical reputation has only grown over the years. It's now clear that “Magnolia” is a staggering work of genius, a film worth turning over and studying again and again. The director might think its too long but fans of “Magnolia” recognize it as one of the most powerful empathetic American films of the last two decades. [Grade: A]

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