Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s third feature is more than a film. I know it’s a cliché, but “Magnolia” is an experience. It’s the film, but it’s also the context and yourself. Seeing “Magnolia” was like first seeing “Pulp Fiction” some 5 years ago. Due to Anderson’s vow of secrecy, I knew practically nothing about the film, like I knew next to nothing about Tarantino’s opus. Both times, I was like alright, I’ve seen many movies, here’s another one, hope it’ll be good. It starts and before long, I’m like whoa, this ain’t just any movie. There’s so much happening that there’s no way you’ll get it all in one viewing. But you’re hooked and you care, and you go through all sorts of emotions, and you never know what to expect.
I guess I could say the same thing of a lot of my favorites of 1999 (and I did). But there’s something just so… grandiose about “Magnolia”. I know size shouldn’t matter, but sometimes it does. “Magnolia” is not one good movie, it’s like 7 or 8 good movies which complete each other to form one big uncanny Movie. I’m sure PT Anderson is tired of everyone doing that, but I have to compare him to Quentin Tarantino. Again. What can you do about it, one’s path echoes the other’s and vice-versa. “Reservoir Dogs”/”Hard Eight”: a first movie establishes an original style, themes, influences. Minor hit, but those who see it are impressed. “Pulp Fiction”/”Boogie Nights”: thanks to more great writing and directing, but also 70s nostalgia (Travolta in “Pulp”, everything in “Boogie”) and a hip soundtrack, movie #2 scores big and even reaches the mainstream. “Jackie Brown”/”Magnolia”: instead of trying (in vain) to go faster and bolder, the filmmaker decides to go smarter. To dig deeper in his characters. To give them more time. Mass audiences dismiss it. Connaisseurs are in awe.
Okay, now you’re gonna say, “In the end, isn’t Pulp Fiction better than Jackie Brown?” Well, yeah, but how do you top Pulp fuckin Fiction? Then again, as cool as “Boogie Nights” was, it didn’t quite have that jaw-dropping speech à la Jules in the coffee shop, or that brilliant narrative, or that did-that-just-happen? moment that everyone will always remember. “Magnolia” does. Big time.
I’m gonna try to work out some sort of plot summary without revealing too much, just to give you a clearer taste if my vague analogies haven’t convinced you yet. Okay, hold on, we’re off: Late 90s, LA’s San Fernando Valley. Today, the weather will be unstable (!), and so will the relationships and the mental balance of a dozen people who are more or less linked. Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is one of the good ones, earnest and thoughtful. He gets a call for a tenant in an apartment building who listens to her music way too loud. She opens the door and there she is: pretty, fragile, Claudia (Melora Walters). She has a lot of issues, and she snorts coke. No one’s perfect. Maybe it would help if she wasn’t so angry with her dad, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who not only estranged his daughter but cheats on his wife Rose (Melinda Dillon). Despite his troubles at home, he still has to go host What Do Kids Know?, which he has hosted for 30 years. These days, the whiz kid on the trivia show is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), but he ain’t that happy, what with his pushy, greedy dad (Michael Bowen), and it doesn’t help to see how Donnie (William H. Macy), one of the show’s first brainiac stars, has lost his childhood only to turn out broke, lonely and desperate. Meanwhile, the show’s producer (Jason Robards) is on his death bed, between four dogs, a caring male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his much younger second wife (Julianne Moore). But like all the others, he has regrets, only he has very little time to try and make it better…
…8, 9, 10… ?? ! No, that’s not a dozen, but that’s because I left two characters for the end. First there’s Dixon, a black kid who has little screen time but I’m sure it’s crucial, but I’ll have to see the movie again to try and understand it. And then there’s Tom Cruise, oh Tom Cruise, whom PT Anderson wrote a role especially for, and it’s not just any role. We’re talking about Frank Mackey, and we’re talking about the film’s biggest laughs and the saddest scenes. Cruise is one of the world’s biggest stars, but he disappears into the role. This is Cruise like you’ve never seen him. “Respect the cock… and tame the cunt!”, that’s all I’ll say!
Now that’s a big cast, but no one seems left out. In expert strokes, Anderson develops all the characters into full-fledged persons, with their hopes, their ideals, their flaws, their regrets… They’re so different, but they’re all the same. They’re human. Like all great filmmakers, Paul Thomas Anderson wants to make art but also to try and change the world. Take a sad song and make it better, as Paul would say. Some will still find the film incredibly dark and depressing. It often is, because there isn’t an answer for everyone. But that’s life, sad but true. Not everyone gets his happy ending. Yet, as far as the actors are concerned, they all get to shine. And that’s another thing about Paul Thomas Anderson. His movies are fast and daring, his camera never stops, the editing is out of this world, cinema never seemed so free and wild but in the end, it all comes down to strong writing and impeccable actor direction.
I gotta write something about the music, too, because it’s integral to the movie, sometimes to the point of taking over (you’ll see). P.T. Anderson tells everyone who’ll listen how much he loves the songs of Aimee Mann, and how the soundtrack is his little personal mix tape of her songs. He even says it’s her music that inspired a lot of the film. At first, it’s a letdown. Mann sings good and all, but what does she have that Jewel doesn’t? But then what goes on in the movie gives a new depth to the songs, and the songs reflect on the movie and… I don’t know if this will be to Mann what “The Graduate” was to Simon & Garfunkel. Time will tell, I guess. Listen also for some Supertramp (the wonderful Goodbye Stranger and The Logical Song) as well as a powerful score from Jon Brion.
I love “Magnolia”. The more I think about it, the more I realize things and the more I love it. Here’s a movie which isn’t about simple little things and botched resolutions. One day, one city, but emotionally and visually, it’s an epic. I could go on and on interpreting this and that, but not now. I need to see the film again and again and again, and you too. Don’t be lazy, and this movie will enlighten you. Don’t worry about the 3h10 length. Anderson has a great deal to set up, and when the totally unpredictable pay-off comes… I’m telling you, I left the theater literally shaking. Last time a movie had that effect was when they re-released a film that I didn’t know anything about except that it was supposed to be one of the best ever made. That movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. Mmm… Wasn’t that the movie everyone hated when it came out, but then years later it was reappraised it and everyone started saying oh yeah, we love it, sure? Don’t make the same mistake, embrace this classic in the making today!