Paul Thomas Anderson joined those ranks in 1996, lending his voice to a movement of storytelling that reflected the sharp transition of our society on the move towards full reveal with “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights.” The latter film, which tells the story of an ensemble of people who were at the epicenter of the rise and fall of 70s porn, essentially set the stage not just for his own eventual success through the industry but also inspired others on both ends of the experience line (the great Robert Altman, for example, was so enamored by his flair that he even hired him to be his understudy for “A Prairie Home Companion”). New facets in a continuous evolution of skill and approach have given him a career of enduring success even while many of his peers have floundered, and along with Quentin Tarantino he belongs in that elite club of self-taught filmmakers who learned their craft from watching a lot of old films rather than going through educational curriculums.
Anderson has made six solid pictures over the last two decades, but it is “Magnolia,” his third endeavor, that remains his personal favorite. Released in late 1999 amid a flurry of impassioned responses, it was also his most divisive. I was not privy to seeing it until years later, when it wound up in my hands at the beckoning of a college colleague who felt it possessed the thumbprint of the most promising filmmaker of our generation. About halfway through my first viewing, I saw what he was getting at – abilities that had only been briefly revealed in his two earlier films were now fully illuminated here, establishing the right style and tone in a series of interlocking stories that might have otherwise seemed like those second-rate after school specials from the 80s. And yet there is a power not just in the way the stories are told, but in what they deal with and how they deal with them. The characters became important to us, their plight heavy on our own hearts. The manner in which situations are exposed in one story and then absorbed into another creates complex conundrums, unmasking a humility that is relative to our lives and our feelings. To see the film is to bear witness to a great truth being discovered through elaborate illusions: that for every broken dream and hard reality the people are fragmented by, the divide that separates us is all but imaginary.
The material plays less like a movie and more like the experiences of a series of lives we pass through on an average day. Many share similarities, others bloodlines. And in rarer instances, a few of them simply wander through one another’s sphere by circumstance or luck. If there can be a center to all of the material at all, it comes closest with the character of Claudia (Melora Waters), a single woman living with a drug problem who is estranged from her father on the basis that he may have sexually abused her. Her existence is reduced to doing lines of coke, meeting random guys for sex at bars and blaring music so loud in her apartment that it infuriates the neighbors; so much so, in fact, that they wind up calling law enforcement on her. The arrival of a police officer named Jim (John C. Reilly) sets the stage for the second act of her life: he is not so much a cop as much as he is a lonely caregiver who uses the law as his mask, and she is moved by his apparent concern, paving the way for simple conversations that are cute and succinct but driven by the quiet acknowledgment of deep wounds in both of their souls.
The distinction in the movie – much like it was in Altman’s own “Short Cuts” – is that many of the characters provide their own centers instead of being figures that revolve around the arc of one specific. A brief rundown: Claudia’s father is Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a television personality who is the host of a famous network quiz show for child prodigies; his wife, the supportive Rose (Melinda Dillon), keeps close tabs on him at tapings for fear of his safety, especially since no one on set knows he is dying of cancer. On set of said show, “What Do Kids Know?”, 10-year-old Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is calculated in his brilliant use of the mind – especially against a competing team of adults – but is somewhat distanced from his father Rick (Michael Bowen), who seems to care more about winning than preserving his son’s sanity. The potential outcome of this arc is imagined through the ongoing life experiences of Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former quiz kid who has grown up into a pathetic loser barely getting by as a salesman at an electronics store who hopes to recapture some element of his lost youth by getting braces (even though he clearly does not need them).
Meanwhile, a retired television producer named Earl Patridge (Jason Robards in his final film role) is on his deathbed and reveals a series of sad life circumstances and regrets that fuel the actions of his hospice nurse Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who makes an attempt on Earl’s behalf to reach out to the son he alienated decades prior. That is not an action that sits very well with Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore), who spends much of the movie going in and out of the house while on a cellphone, picking up prescription drugs and dealing with his impending death (and her regrets) with extreme outward anxiety, sometimes in explosive ways. Simultaneous to all of that, we meet his son Frank (Tom Cruise), also a television personality, whose success is owed to a scathingly sexist infomercial called “Seduce and Destroy,” in which Frank inspires the average man to bed any woman he wants using the “magic of language.” A calculated female reporter named Gwenovier (April Grace) detects cracks in that thin veneer of misogyny, however, and exploits them in front of television cameras to contemptuous detail.
Much happens to all of these people through the course of a busy 188 minutes, none of it futile. If movies are like songs, then “Magnolia” plays like a symphony in the way it conducts its players through emotional currents and echoes that are distinctly autonomous from one another, yet takes them all to the same flourishing conclusion. Anderson reportedly wrote his screenplay over a period of two weeks, suggesting a skill for observation that is painstaking. Here are lives that have been long and tumultuous, and in most cases have been brought to a state of pathos that is paralyzing. But they are not artificial, or forced. In many circumstances, we as viewers are caught up in them without reservation, as if the screen projects intuition rather than plot points. The truthful dialogue is the anchor in all of this, sometimes delivered with a poetry that is clever and yet pointed (“It’s a dangerous thing to confuse children with angels”).
It is through interactions -- intended or accidental – that things are painted in rich strokes. Consider how natural the parallels seem between some of them. Jimmy Gator and Frank Mackey are both important figures to television, for example, who hide devastating family secrets that are indicative of childhood trauma. Focused women (in this case, Rose Gator and Gwenovier) seem to be the only ones courageous enough to see behind the mask, and do so with scathing honesty. But to what end does that serve them? For Mackey, who is crumbled by interaction with the reporter, the reality comes through in a vulgar and violent tirade, ultimately giving way to a vulnerability that is exploited further in a scene when he must confront the source of his trauma: a father who abandoned him and his mother at an early age, who is now mere breaths away from dying. It is perhaps worth noting, even in hindsight, that this is the finest of performances Tom Cruise has ever given in the movies. So solid in “Born on the Fourth of July” and subtle in “Eyes Wide Shut,” his approach here is a frontal attack that originates from obvious hints of internal darkness, and it is played on a consistent note that never waivers from being masterful.
The technical details are astounding in the way they peer into lives and then find a way to draw them into the same collective circumstances. Notice how in many of the scenes the camera does not stagnate, but follows the characters through rooms and passageways as if an observer hounding its subject until they reveal all; this technique recalls Brian De Palma, who in turn learned it from Truffaut. There are also countless facial close-ups of the characters caught in deadpan stares, some of them resulting from a mental collapse and others caused by the unwise prodding of others (one involving Stanley during a disastrous moment on the quiz show is particularly striking, and is conveyed with admirable precision). A great deal has been said in film circles of the ambitious climax, of course, which creates an overreach of surrealism that many feel is incongruent with the thrust of the material. But to denounce it is to ignore the blatant foreshadowing that snakes its way through varying acts of the movie (at first with the thought-provoking prologue, and then later in scenes containing references to biblical passages that can be missed by merely blinking). My thoughts: a movie so thoroughly seeped in the quiet desperation of its characters is sometimes starved for something grandiose, and the wallop of a punch that the final act delivers is not only brilliant, but somehow… organic, in a way, to the context of it all.
“Magnolia” could have dwindled from memory under the guidance of a director more inclined to show the material in a straightforward manner, but the movie lives on like an imprint in the mind, fascinating and engrossing us with each passing year. I have seen it roughly 15 times over the course of a decade, and each time I find myself peeling back a fresh layer and finding new perspectives that are silently woven within the complex framework of plot, style and characterization. For Anderson to make such a deep film at a relatively young age (28, to be exact) suggests a quality not easily captured by any medium, even the movies. But to direct a masterpiece that grows stronger and more resonating in the passing experience of life is even more elusive, almost celestial. A few have done it through the course of motion picture history – Bergman with “Wild Strawberries,” Fellini with “Amarcord” and Spielberg with “E.T.”, as examples – and in each case the reasoning is simple: here are directors who have been shaped by life’s rough terrain and have much to say about it, but can only reveal the full scope of their voice once we walk the same long mile. As the years pass and we are weathered by universal experiences, the predicaments of Anderson’s characters seem less pathetic and more like the plight of everyone we love and admire.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama (US); 1999; Rated R for strong language, drug use, sexuality and some violence; Running Time: 188 Minutes
Julianne Moore: Linda Partridge
William H. Macy: Donnie Smith
John C. Reilly: Jim Kurring
Tom Cruise: Frank T.J. Mackey
Philip Baker Hall: Jimmy Gator
Phillip Seymour Hoffman: Phil Parma
Jason Robards: Earl Partridge
Melora Waters: Claudia Wilson Gator
Jeremy Blackman: Stanley Spector
Michael Bowen: Rick Spector
Melinda Dillon: Rose Gator
April Grace: Gwenovier
Felicity Huffman: Cynthia
Henry Gibson: Thurston Howell
Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael De Luca, Lynn Harris, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar and Dylan Tichenor; Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson