Magnolia, the new film from writer/director of Boogie Nights Paul Thomas Anderson, is
not an easy film to talk about. So I won't. I'll talk about the audience's reaction to it, instead.
The particular audience that I saw the movie with was made up mainly of people about
my age. Or rather, the people my age were the most verbal. They laughed, often at what I
believe were inappropriate times (although it was hard to tell), and made numerous loud
comments. A number of other people, instead of complaining or laughing, opted to simply walk
out of the theater. One particular man, who was sitting a few rows behind me, got up as soon as
the credits came on the screen and shouted, "That movie SUCKED!"
This is one of those films that people say one either loves or hates. I understand the
comment, and obviously there were people in the theater that night that had those kinds of
extreme reactions to the film. But personally I have only rather ambiguous feelings about
Magnolia. Perhaps that's because I love and hate it at the same time.
There are two particular moments in the film which invite vociferous outbursts. I'm not
sure if it would be better to prepare you for these moments by describing them to you, or to leave
them as surprises. So I'll cop out and let you make the decision. The next two paragraphs will
describe two of the most shocking moments in Magnolia. Read or skip them as you see fit.
About half way through this three-hour long ordeal of a film, all of our numerous
characters are, for the moment, sitting still in their various locations. One of them begins to sing
along, sadly and achingly (there is a lot of sadness and ache in this movie), with a song on the
soundtrack (a very good song, by the way, on a particularly good soundtrack with songs by
Aimee Mann and, believe it or not, Supertramp). We then cut to another of our characters, and he begins
to sing along, too. And soon we have witnessed each one of our main characters singing along to this
same music. Even Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is dying of cancer, gets up enough strength to
sing a duet with his male nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
The other moment that will stretch your suspension of disbelief to its limit takes place at
the very end of the film. Each of our plotlets have reached their climaxes when suddenly it
begins to rain frogs. Very realistic frogs--the special effects are excellent. The frogs have
effects on each of the stories, ranging from serious to otherwise. The most important change that
they bring about is that they stop a man from killing himself (a frog falls through a skylight and
knocks the gun out of his hand just as he is pulling the trigger). The effect the frogs had on the
audience was summed up rather easily by the woman who was sitting a few seats to my left, who
exclaimed, as the first frog hit a car's windshield, "What the hell...?"
Of course, the film tries to prepare you for these moments. The opening prologue is a
series of supposedly true stories, accompanied by narration, which involve very strange and
often rather tragic coincidences. The movie puts itself forward as another one of these stories.
These stories, as well as the shocking revelatory moments that I have described above,
are quite funny. I'm not sure whether Paul Thomas Anderson intended for them to be funny, but
they are, quite undeniably. The audience I was with laughed at the pure ridiculousness of these
moments. It was almost impossible not to. I'm not sure if that's good or bad.
Now that I have begun talking about this strange, confusing film, I might as well try to
continue. I won't give you a plot summary, however--one, because it would be an almost
impossible task, and two, because the movie is not really about story, it's about people.
Magnolia consists of a complex network of multiple plotlets, which are interconnected mainly by
way of strange and coincidental relationships between the many characters. Allow me to
demonstrate: Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall, a great actor who also starred in Anderson's first
film, Hard Eight) is host of a television game show called "What Do Kids Know?" His
estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) is now a cocaine addict. Because she plays her
music too loud, she meets Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly, also of Hard Eight and Boogie
Nights), who is looking for love, and who earlier that day met a little black boy who near the end
of the film will save the life of Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore of The Big Lebowski), wife of
Earl Partridge (Robards), whose company produced the game show called "What Do Kids
Know?" And so on.
Thematically, the film is so overloaded it's hard to know where to begin. But mainly it's
about love and loneliness and forgiveness. It's about fathers and sons, fathers and daughters,
husbands and wives, and death bed confessions. It's so loaded with Tragedy and Angst and
Agony (yes, all with capital letters), that it may literally make you sick. The intensity of this film
is overwhelming--it does not let up for one solitary moment of its 188 minutes of screen time.
This powerful intensity is thanks, at least in part, to incredible acting, which the movie is also
filled to bursting with (I neglected to mention the fact that Tom Cruise appears in a Golden
Globe-winning performance as the estranged son of Earl Partridge). That is perhaps the film's
main problem--it is absolutely filled to bursting. It is overdone in almost every way. I've heard
it said, mainly in reference to Orson Welles, that it's dangerous to give a filmmaker too much
freedom, but I never believed it until now. Anderson, flush from his success with Boogie Nights,
has poured his whole heart and mind into this movie, and the result is a rather pretentious mush
that's too full of its own importance to recognize that it is unstable, over-emotional,
melodramatic, and rather goofy. It thinks it's self-aware, but it doesn't know how funny it is. It
thinks it's very insightful, but its only insight seems to be, "strange things happen." It's
undeniable that a lot of talent and emotion went into this film, but where art is concerned, raw
talent and emotion are not always enough--some restraint is often necessary, as well. That's
what Magnolia needed: a little restraint.
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