Magnolia (1997): Paul Thomas Anderson’s Follow Up to Boogie Nights

In its ambitious scope and grand operatic style, Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s eagerly-awaited follow-up to his highly acclaimed Boogie Nights, confirms his status as one of the most audacious filmmakers in Hollywood today.

Set in the San Fernando Valley, this imposing tapestry about the mysterious working of fate and coincidence and the need for interconnection and love, interweaves the stories of a dozen characters as they embark on a moral odyssey during one intense day in their tumultuous lives. A superlative ensemble, headed by Tom Cruise (in his best dramatic turn to date), Jason Robards, Melora Walters, and Julianne Moore, gives this meditation on urban alienation the aura of a major work highly in tune with the zeitgeist. However, epic length of 3 hours, several repetitive montages, largely somber and downbeat tone, and other demands placed on the viewers will curtail pic’s commercial appeal, resulting in lukewarm, below expectations B.O.

Self-discipline, not talent, is the major issue in Anderson’s career, for in his new movie, as in the previous ones, he proves to be an astute writer with sharp observations about the human condition, a flamboyant stylist with his high-voltage camera, and a terrific actors’ director, coaxing splendid performances from a huge cast that consists of about 30 speaking parts. What Anderson lacks, however, is restraint in telling his complex, reflexive postmodern tale. Magnolia doesn’t only suffer from exorbitant running time, but from excessive sensorial approach that might put off the more mainstream viewers.

Despite rave reviews, Boogie Nights didn’t play well in the plexes due to its subject matter: The porn industry. But those who saw it were surprised by the sweet nature of the saga, which succeeded in making its offbeat characters accessible and even likable. The problems with Magnolia, which is arguably a more ambitious and mature work, are not so much thematic as structural and stylistic, based on the abrasive visual and musical mode in which the fractured tale unfolds.

A brief prologue, which sets the disturbing tone of the entire film, presents three acts of violence, jumping between a 1911 prison yard, a 1958 tenement, and the early 1980s. Accompanied by voice-over narration, this unconventional overture signals pic’s dominant motifs of the peculiar operation of chance in life and the notion that “strange things happen all the time.”

At the center of the elaborate maze is patriarch Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a dying man who’s forced to come to terms with his failures, specifically cheating on his loyal first spouse and irresponsibly walking out on his family, leaving the chores of caring for his cancer-ridden wife to their only son, Frank Mackey (Cruise). Earl is now tended by his much younger and hysterical wife, Linda (Moore), who can’t deal with his death. The burdensome routines are carried out by Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a devoted male nurse who’s unable to separate his professional duties from his emotional involvement with Earl.

Refusing to see Earl, or even acknowledge his existence, Frank is a seductive TV guru who sells popular, high-priced seminars that teach angry, frustrated men how to get their way with women. Frank markets his philosophy–“Respect the Cock”–in brilliantly staged sequences that are more unsettling than the similarly-themed scenes in The Fight Club, which also dealt with male anger. As in the case of all the characters, a chain of weird circumstances force Frank to come to terms with his family and past.

The most emotionally engaging–and splendidly acted–story centers on the travails of a compassionate cop, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilley), who’s prone to bumbling about the importance of “doing good and helping others.” During one of his routine calls, Jim drops on Claudia (Melora Walters), a high-strung woman who’s addicted to drug, loud music, and media saturation. Their interaction begins with yelling and screaming (in a previous scene, Claudia kicks her menacing father out of her apartment), with Claudia insisting that she wants to be left alone, but eventually she consents to go out on a date with Jim and a tentative affair follows.

The weakest section (which could be cut by half) is a TV Quiz game, hosted by veteran Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who’s Claudia’s father. This yarn brings to the surface the conflict between Rick Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a father living off the brilliance of his genius son, Stanley (Michael Bowen), until the latter rebels and not only refuses to answer the smart questions but interrupts the show in an embarrassing behavior.

Anderson introduces his dramatis persona in a bold, original manner, constructing for each character a parallel or an opposite. Hence, Stanley is juxtaposed with Donnie Smith ((William h. Macy), a 60s quiz show star, who’s now reduced to a routine job at an electronic store, hoping that a pricy oral operation will provide his salvation and bring much needed love to his dull existence.

The narrative is divided into three parts, designated by titles that describe the weather (light showers, high humidity. The organizing principle of the expansive material is that of the duo, with each interaction marked by changing allocation of power and control. This is particularly evident in the relationships between professionals and their patients/clients. Hence Linda attacks her pharmacist, TV game players disobey their host and his rules, various residents scream at the well-meaning cop.

If Boogie Nights was unmistakably influenced by Scorsese’s style, Magnolia begs comparison with Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), which is also set in L.A., and John Sayles’ political drama, City of Hope (1991), as two mosaics of American life woven through a series of darkly comic vignettes. All three films present a poignant portrait of human and urban malaise, underlined by hidden elements of crisis that threatens to erupt. Similarly to Altman, who employed the device of an earthquake to unify his self-absorbed characters, Anderson is using a ferocious rain of frogs to bring his lonely characters together.

But Magnolia avoids Short Cuts’s bitter and cynical tone, ending with a series of emotionally satisfying reconciliations. And it lacks City of Hope’s schematic melodrama, with Anderson viewing all his characters with sympathy and from the inside. With a style that’s full of quirks and surprises, he offers a perceptive gaze on such traditional American values as unbridled materialism, uncontrollable dependency on the mass media, monogamous marriage and familial love.

Ace lenser Robert Elswitt does marvels with his dynamic, mobile camera. In a bravura sequence that borrows from opera and musicals all the characters burst out singing, with the camera astutely conveying their disparate locations and moods. The interdependent plot lines are set to the songs of Aimee Mann, whose music becomes part of the film’s warp and weave. Her title song, “Save Me,” fits the film’s melancholy mood like a silk glove. Peppered with beguiling appearances by a huge ensemble (with luminous turns by Cruise, Walters, Hall, and Reilly) and piercing commentary on both estrangement and renewal, Magnolia is a remarkably inventive and audacious film that almost overcomes its flaws.