Published on December 17th, 1999 | by Padraic Coffey0
With his second film, Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson won almost universal critical acclaim and amassed a surprisingly solid return for a film that skated precariously close to the dreaded NC-17 rating, box-office anathema in the US. Pressure mounted to deliver a worthy follow up, and Anderson, never one to rest on his laurels, began working immediately on an even more ambitious film. The resulting product, Magnolia, though generally well-regarded, divided both audiences and critics, many of whom felt discouraged at the thought of a three-hour-plus movie depicting half-a-dozen tangential stories without a unifying central protagonist. Some of those who saw the film were baffled by its literally biblical climax, feeling its sheer preposterousness undermined all that come before. Overshadowed at the turn of the century by the likes of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, time has been kind to Magnolia, and its reputation, coupled with Anderson’s as one of America’s premier cinematic auteurs, is steadily on the rise.
The film begins with breathless and seemingly unrelated prologue detailing three separate ‘coincidences’ alleged to have occurred in London, Reno and Los Angeles. Though no reference is made to this passage again until the very end of the film, it looms large over the three hours that follow. Plot-wise, Magnolia defies conventional synopses. Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is a devoutly religious police officer, called to investigate a domestic disturbance at the residence of Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters). Claudia is herself a heavy drug-user, traumatised by her apparently abusive relationship with father Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall). Gator is the host of a long-running quiz show ‘What Do Kids Know?’, which features reluctant child prodigy Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), and is produced by dying television producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards). Bedridden with cancer, Partridge seeks reconciliation with his estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a guru conducting seminars on how to bed as many women as possible, with taglines such as “No pussy has nine lives”.
So ambitious is Anderson’s storytelling style in weaving together these interconnected subplots – as well as others – that Magnolia not only benefits from repeat viewings; it demands them. If Boogie Nights owed much to Scorsese, then Magnolia might be Anderson’s love letter to Robert Altman, specifically films such as Nashville and Short Cuts. Sidney Lumet’s Network, too, was a precursor, as Anderson screened the film for the crew prior to production. Returning from Boogie Nights are several cast members; Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Melora Walters and Ricky Jay. The presence of Tom Cruise injected some star-wattage into this group of character actor stalwarts. Cruise’s casting could have jarred disastrously with his co-stars; many felt he didn’t have the acting chops to tackle the role. Anderson elicited one of the best performance of Cruise’s career – just as he would do with Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love – his ubiquitous toothy grin and boisterous misogyny concealing a deep-seated family trauma. Cruise’s tearful confrontation with is moribund father recalls Marlon Brando’s foul-mouthed tirade against his deceased wife in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.
Anderson utilises a technique popularised in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, of scoring his film entirely around the work of one musical artist, in this case Aimee Mann. Mann’s songs, at turns sprightly and melancholy, are peppered throughout, culminating in the most grandiose, self-conscious scene, a montage of all major characters singing her song ‘Wise Up’. This moment, though undeniably pretentious, is also a rebuke to those who would accost Anderson for deliberately affected filmmaking, in particular his reliance on soundtrack, as demonstrated in Boogie Nights. While the complexities of the film’s many storylines slot together beautifully, Anderson himself summarised the theme of Magnolia is a single sentence: “It’s about parent-children relationships, and how that affects who you are.” That theme informs not only the major plot points in the film, but many on the periphery, enriching the experience of additional viewings. Anderson, perhaps exhausted from the undertaking of Magnolia, moved in a completely different direction for his next film, Punch-Drunk Love, which lasted half the running time and shifted focus from an ensemble cast to one central protagonist. Though Anderson has produced stellar output since Magnolia, one longs for a return to the sheer level of scale displayed here. With both Boogie Nights and Magnolia back to back, Paul Thomas Anderson delivered one of the great cinematic one-two punches of the last several decades.