Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson: Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia (1999)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), William H. Macy (Donnie Smith), John C. Reilly (Officer Jim Kurring), Tom Cruise (Frank T.J. Mackey), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), Jason Robards (Earl Partridge), Melora Walters (Claudia Wilson Gator), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector), Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Alfred Molina (Solomon Solomon), Ricky Jay (Burt Ramsey / Narrator), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator), April Grace (Gwenovier), Luis Guzmán (Luis), Henry Gibson (Thurston Howell), Felicity Huffman (Cynthia).

After making Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson pretty much had carte blanche to make any film he wanted to make – and he certainly used it with Magnolia. This is a film that only a director very confident of his own abilities – some called it arrogance – could possibly make. It is a film full of jagged emotions, that Anderson stages with operatic like flourishes. On the surface, it looks very much like a Robert Altman film – as Boogie Nights did – as it is another large mosaic of characters, who are somewhat connected. But it really resembles a John Cassevetes movie more. This is a film of big emotions, and wild flourishes – that starts with most of its characters at the end of their rope emotionally – and then pushes them even farther. If it didn’t work – as many of its imitators since have not – it would be insufferable. But Anderson pulls it brilliantly – making one of the best films of the 1990s.

The film is about a bunch of lost souls in Los Angeles. Frank “T.J.” Mackey (Tom Cruise) makes a good living hocking his “seduce and destroy” system of getting women, to pathetic, sex starved men. He gets on stage and spouts a lot of misogynistic bullshit, but does so with such confidence that people buy in. But his eyes are dead – there is nothing there – and eventually we’ll start to learn why. His father is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) – who abandoned him years ago when his mother got sick – and is now on his deathbed, looking to reconnect. His nurse is Phillip Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who tries to get this done for him, while Earl’s trophy wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is stuck in a loop of drug induced grief and regret. Earl worked in television, and one of the shows he produced was a game show pitting children against adults, hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). A current child contestant is Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), who is tired of all the pressure on him – a lot of it placed by his father, Rick (Michael Bowen). A former contestant, from 30 years ago, is Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), still trading on that little bit of fame, and reaching out for any sort of human connection – but has that constantly thwarted. Gator’s daughter is Claudia (Melora Walters), who will not talk to him anymore – and has fallen into a cycle of drug abuse and promiscuity – but may be able to break free of that with the help of Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) – a LAPD officer, and the only truly optimistic character in the movie, which helps in a movie this dark.

These characters circle each other, and Anderson cuts together their separate stories for maximum emotional effect, placing like scenes in different stories together. His style, like in Boogie Nights, favors a lot of long tracking shots – but because there are more stories here, his editing is almost montage like – and is tied together by the score by Jon Brion, and the songs of Aimee Mann, which run through the movie. At one point, late in the film, all the characters even sing along to Mann’s Wise Up – all while alone, basically singing to themselves.

Boogie Nights is, to me, a perfect film. It is a film that follows its premise straight from beginning to end, where everything makes sense, and is perfectly executed. Magnolia is a far more ambitious film – and it isn’t perfect – but it may in fact be an even greater film. In all fairness, this really shouldn’t work that well – it should come across as overly ambitious, overly serious and pretentious. But because Anderson – and his cast – is so committed to it, it comes across brilliantly. It’s jagged, and over the top and imperfect by design – and this simply adds to its greatness.

The performances are great. In his next film, Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson would brilliantly deconstruct Adam Sandler’s onscreen persona, to make it more disturbing and deeper than it has ever been before or since. In Magnolia, he does the same thing to the screen persona of Tom Cruise. Many have often joked that Cruise’s every character is defined by their “grim determination” – and that is certainly true in Magnolia as well. But here, it’s scary, disturbing and creepy – he isn’t a hero here, but a monster. But instead of leaving it there, like most would, Anderson and Cruise go deeper with Mackey – showing a human dimension to him (eventually). It may well be the best work Cruise has ever done. The rest of the cast is similarly wonderful – the deaths of Jason Robards (this was his last film), and Philip Seymour Hoffman make their scenes – where death is imminent anyway – hit even harder now than they did in 1999. Julianne Moore and Melora Walters both do great, drug addled performances of women who have simply had enough. John C. Reilly brings humor to the loneliness of his character, which makes him even more touching. Macy plays Donnie as pathetically human – he’s not all that much unlike Scotty, the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Boogie Nights. A line that if repeated throughout Magnolia is “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us” – and that’s ultimately what the film is about. All of the characters are haunted by events that happened well before the movie began, and must find a way to move past them. Some of them will make it, and some of them won’t.

I suppose we have to address the strange ending to the film (SPOILER WARNING) where frogs rain from the sky. I know to many, this seemed downright strange and unnecessary – and to be fair, I think Magnolia could have been a great film without it. But it brings the film back to the beginning – where Anderson tells three, quick, short stories about coincidence (or maybe not) of things that you wouldn’t believe happened – but they did happen. Strange things happen all the time. Magnolia is a film with unending ambition – and a film that simply looks better and better each time I watch it. Boogie Nights is a perfect film – Magnolia isn’t – but it’s a better one.

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