Those who choose to dismiss Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's dark (and darkly humorous) meditation on loneliness and regret in the San Fernando Valley, will probably see it as self-important and philosophically inflated -- the kind of three-hour ordeal that university professors can dissect at their leisure while ordinary folks shy away in droves. What is the embattled moviegoer to make, for instance, of the bizarre moment near the end when Anderson looses a rain of frogs -- that's right, frogs -- on the city of Los Angeles? Is this some mad confusion of biblical scourge and low-budget horror effect?
On the other hand, we will likely soon tire of the sanctified prison inmates, long-suffering Irish slum-dwellers and incorruptible football coaches whose predictable bios and back stories have dominated the holiday movie season. In Magnolia, by contrast, we find a filmmaker willing to take dramatic chances -- wild stabs, even -- because he has an obsessive vision of American life, its desolation and its hope.
Young Anderson is no stranger to daring: His first feature, a tough little gambling picture called Hard Eight, showed promise, and he delivered on that last time around with the award-winning Boogie Nights, which had the nerve to unearth family values among a gaggle of seedy L.A. pornographers. If anything, his new film is bolder in style and subject matter. It's an Altmanesque pastiche of stories whose characters are linked by the all-consuming eye of television and by a common terror: playing out the string without gaining earthly redemption. But the movie's convolutions, satirical sidetracks and asides may put off as many viewers as they intrigue: In trying to capture the accidents and disturbances of real life, Anderson frequently veers into the realm of the surreal, and the strange sense he makes of the world will certainly not be to everyone's liking. The superb cast, which ranges from hotshot Tom Cruise to icon Jason Robards and includes five actors from Boogie Nights, goes as far out on a limb as the director. When asked, they even literally sing out the sorrow that's in their souls.
The epicenter of the film, which traces the events of a single, shattering day, is Earl Partridge (Robards), a crusty old patriarch dying painfully of cancer and tormented by a life of carelessness. His young wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is wracked with guilt over her gold-digging and her infidelities. And Earl's deeply estranged son (Cruise) has taken up a bizarre career as the charismatic TV guru Frank Mackey, who sells bare-fanged misogyny to millions of men. Magnolia's other loveless characters, too, are more or less tied to the head of the deeply dysfunctional Partridge family, which no one will mistake for the squeaky-clean boob-tube troubadors of the 1970s. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Phil is a nurse trying to care for Earl's body, and his spirit. William H. Macy's Donnie Smith is a former quiz-show whiz kid whose adult life is on the skids, and little Jeremy Blackman is Donnie's dramatic double, a kid genius who can sing whole arias and spout higher calculus to a game-show host but cannot solve the mystery of an unfeeling father. The show's host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), has for thirty years been the picture of paternal cheer, but his off-camera life is a hell of lies, booze and cheating. Bumbling L.A. cop Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is the victim of his own good-heartedness, and Jimmy Gator's daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) is a loner adrift in a haze of drugs and delusion.
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In Magnolia's complex scheme, they are all prisoners of the past searching in vain for human contact in a time and place that does not easily yield it. Wasting away in his bed, old Earl likely speaks for everyone when he says: "The biggest regret of my life? I let my love go. I ruined my love."
The thing that Anderson has let go, with no regret whatsoever, is the screenwriter's old reliance on the buttoned-up, well-made, three-act play. In its place, he gives us a jagged mosaic of emotion that careens from a magazine interviewer's dogged dismantling of a macho icon's public myth to the terror of a child unraveling in front of a studio audience to the hysteria of a woman trying to fill her dying husband's prescriptions under the gaze of a leery druggist. This dizzying array of social disorder, circa 1999, resounds with braying and wailing and the gnashing of teeth, a spectacle every bit as untidy as contemporary life itself. The shame of a desperate man begging for love in a corner bar reflects the crisis of a woman who's snorting her soul away, which echoes the desolation of a wife who's just glimpsed the depth of her husband's waywardness. New visions of chaos call for new narrative forms, and Anderson's cubist method is a real beauty once you get acclimated to its rhythms. Consider this: As a prologue to the main body of Magnolia, he tells us of three incidents -- a hanging, a fire and a weird case of murder -- that seem to have no relationship at all to the film that follows, but which later adhere to it in odd ways, like the unrelenting terms of a nightmare relate to the dreamer's waking life.
By the time we get to Anderson's apocalyptic rain of frogs -- frogs smashing car windshields, torrents of frogs wrecking houses, city streets knee-deep in frogs -- we understand that this is no mere spectacle, no reheated surrealist trick meant to confound bourgeois rationality. In Anderson's scheme of things, it's an assurance that in the world of regret, determination and chance make anything possible -- even the redemption of the wicked and the salvation of the damned. That, in essence, is what Boogie Nights told us, and it is what, in the end, exalts Magnolia. In just his third outing as a feature filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson has emerged as one of our boldest and most daring moviemakers, the skeptics be damned.
If you've been looking for the most challenging and disturbing film of the past year, your search is over.