MAGNOLIA (1999)

  • Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Starring: Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Melinda Dillon, Henry Gibson, April Grace, Luis Guzman, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Felicity Huffman, Ricky Jay, Emmanuel Johnson, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, Michael Murphy, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, and Melora Walters
  • Accolades: 1999 Berlin International Film Festival – Golden Bear, 3 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Tom Cruise, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song – “Save Me”)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Every Paul Thomas Anderson movie is about something different, but it’s generally very clear who made them. For one thing, they’re nearly all set in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, where Anderson grew up, often as period pieces. This is true of movies like Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, and The Master, and it is also true of Anderson’s 9th and newest film, with the somewhat obtuse title Licorice Pizza. That movie is currently engaged in a slow, Oscar-bait-type rollout around the country. I today saw Licorice Pizza advertised as “Paul Thomas Anderson’s most heartwarming film yet,” which is funny because “heartwarming” is not exactly what I would think of as his strong suit. Anyway, the most Anderson-ish Paul Thomas Anderson movie is almost certainly his third, Magnolia. Whether it is his best or not is a much harder question, though Anderson has since said that, “For better or worse, Magnolia is the best movie I’ll ever make.” But I mean, it’s also over three hours long, and is pitched at such an operatic emotional level that I’m not actually sure I’d really recommend watching it all at once. Even Anderson himself, asked what advice he’d give his younger self about Magnolia if he could, immediately replied, “Chill the f*** out and cut twenty minutes.”

Ostensibly a story about “coincidence,” Magnolia tells the story of a bunch of characters whose lives interconnect over the course of one day in the valley. That description, however, does not quite convey the heightened quality of the thing. Not just in the sense of big acting choices, this is the sort of movie where there’s a montage of all the main characters singing along to the same Aimee Mann song at the same time, and at the climax, famously, involves a literal rain of frogs. Those whose buttons are pushed correctly really, really love this movie, but it requires a greater level of “going with it” than a think a lot of viewers are willing to give it.

In my opinion the strength of Magnolia, by far, is the massive ensemble cast, which included a handful of massive names at the time and some who have become bigger since, and the performances they all give. The story centers around a fictional but vaguely recognizably afternoon game show called What Do Kids Know?, in which a resident team of “quiz kids” faces off against a team of adults. The host of the show (Philip Baker Hall) has just found out he has cancer, and because of this attempts to reconnect with his estranged, cocaine-addict daughter (Melora Walters). The daughter is so upset about this that her neighbors call the police, and she is visited by a very not-smart cop (John C. Reilly). He completely fails to realize that she is a drug addict and ends up asking her on a date. At the same time, the show’s elderly former producer (Jason Robards, in his final film role) is also dying from cancer, and is cared for at his fancy house by his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The producer asks his nurse to find his estranged son before he dies, and the nurse is surprised to discover that the son is now a bizarre (but somehow spot on) men’s rights-y self-help guru played by Tom Cruise.

At the same time, the producer’s much younger wife (Julianne Moore) is having a full-on breakdown at the prospect of his death. She goes to visit his lawyer (Michael Murphy) and confesses that she didn’t love him when they married and only wanted his money, but that now she loves him and feels intensely guilty. He tells her she can “renounce” the inheritance if she wants. Meanwhile, the resident quiz show smart kid (Jeremy Blackman) is intensely unhappy about his semi-abusive relationship with his father (Michael Bowen) and is blatantly exploited by the various crew members, especially the PA (Felicity Huffman) who won’t even let him go to the bathroom. Meanwhile meanwhile, a former kid champion of the show (William H. Macy) is broke because his parents stole all his winnings, and he’s been fired by his boss (Alfred Molina), which is a problem because he’s obsessed with getting braces to fix his teeth (even though his teeth are fine), thinking this will make the hot male bartender he has a crush on fall in love with him. He then sets out to rob the employer for the braces money, a disastrous idea that causes him to eventually run into Reilly’s cop after his date. And so on.

Out of all these characters, the one that got all the attention at the time, and to some extent now, is Cruise’s larger-than-life turn as Frank Mackey. If you have not seen Magnolia, suffice it to say that it is very different than anything that Cruise had done up to this time. There are multiple extended scenes of Mackey giving his self-help seminar about how men can get women to sleep with them, centering around the catch phrase, “Respect the cock, tame the c***!” Most sane audience members will see him as a jerk, and he definitely is, especially when he is interviewed by a female reporter (April Grace) and she asks him questions he doesn’t like. After he stops talking, she asks what he’s doing and he replies, “I’m quietly judging you.” He does go to see his dying father, though when he shows up to a house full of barking dogs he tells Hoffman’s nurse character, “Phil, I swear to God, I will drop-kick those f***ing dogs if they come near me!” And yet, it turns out that, between him and the seemingly saintly dying father, it is Frank who stuck around and took care of his own mother when she was dying, while his father left. Many of the storylines hinge on this sort of expectations reversal.

For me, Magnolia works more as a series of individual set pieces than it does as a movie. It’s just so big and long, without any of the usual trappings thereof, that it’s hard to deal with as a whole. By those set pieces I don’t just mean the frogs falling from the sky or the random musical numbers two hours into a movie that isn’t a musical. There’s one scene where Reilly’s cop character visits a belligerent lady (Cleo King) in her apartment and ends up finding a body in her closet that is both hilarious and works in terms of tension, and goes on for five minutes, but also has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the movie. And pretty much every character has at least one monologue with the potential to be used for auditions by aspiring actors. “No, it’s not dangerous to confuse children with angels!” William H. Macy yells multiple times. Who was saying it was, my dude? Nor have I gotten to the opening discussion of a series of unrelated coincidences (by the magician Ricky Jay, for some reason), including one involving an early-career Patton Oswalt as a Lake Tahoe casino worker who gets swept up from his boat and into the top of a tree (don’t ask).

Despite Anderson’s own insistence that he’ll never make a better movie, these days I think both Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood would get a lot more votes from critics. But Magnolia does still feel like the essential Anderson movie. As he said at the time, it gives the epic treatment to subjects that don’t usually get it. 

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