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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Magnolia (1999)
4 Stars

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall, Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeremy Blackman, William H. Macy, Melinda Dillon, April Grace, Michael Bowen, Alfred Molina, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman, Luis Guzman, Emmanuel Johnson, Henry Gibson, Miguel Perez, Brad Hunt, Jim Beaver.
1999 – 195 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, brief sex, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 8, 1999.

"Magnolia" is a mind-blowing masterpiece of a movie--heavy in drama, intense emotional material, characters, and underlying themes. At 195 minutes (that would be 3 hours 15 minutes), the film is a sprawling artistic triumph, displaying an amount of downright shocking originality and vigor that very few films ever hope to obtain. What I can't, nor never could attempt to explain, is how such an overwhelmingly ambitious, effortlessly fabricated motion picture could be made by a director who is 29-years-old and is only on his third film (the other two being the 1997 double-header, "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights," both of which are among the best films of that respective year). I'll never know his secret, but Anderson can now surely and without a doubt be named the most exciting and fresh filmmaker working today, a genius for the ages.

Only artificially resembling a Robert Altman ensemble picture (1975's "Nashville," 1993's "Short Cuts"), but acquiring a storytelling approach and technical style all its own, "Magnolia" is unlike anything I've seen before, and when you can assuredly say that, you really know the film at hand is, undoubtedly, a unique one.

After an attention-getting prologue, in which three stories are briefly told that concern chance and coincidence, like rapid-fire we immediately are thrown into a whirlwind of characters whom we will then follow over a 24-hour period in the San Fernando Valley. Most are related to each other in some way, which we discover as the film progresses. Kicking things off is Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a truthful, religious police officer who is very lonely and looking for love. After traveling to an apartment building whose one resident has complained about the overly loud music and yelling coming from next door, Jim is immediately struck by the beautiful, but obviously somehow distraught young woman, Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters). Both are attracted to each other right away, but little does he know that Claudia is a cocaine addict, and the ruckus came from her yelling at her estranged father, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who had dropped by earlier to tell her he just found out he has cancer and only has a few months to live. Jimmy Gator is a television host for the popular game show, "What Do Kids Know?," and as this particular episode proceeds during the evening, Jimmy is startled to discover that he is deteriorating faster than he thought, much to the distress of his wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon).

One of the reigning whiz kid contestants is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) who, as the night progresses, realizes that everyone, including his gruff father (Michael Bowen), is treating him like an object, or an encyclopedia, when all he wants is to be looked at as an average kid. Back in the 1960s, the most publicized whiz kid for the show was Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who still lives in the same city, but has just learned that he is about to be fired from his job at a furniture store. Excited about getting corrective teeth surgery, it is soon discovered that Donnie simply longs to be like the one he is in love with, a handsome, buff bartender (Brad Hunt) who has braces himself.

As the game show wears on during the early hours of the night, being filmed on another cable station across town is sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a male chauvinist pig whose motto is "Seduce and Destroy." During an interview with a female reporter (April Grace) between the break of the show, Frank falsely states that his father is dead and has a positive relationship with his mother. In actuality, as a child, he was left to care for his ill mother while his father, the wealthy Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), left them and ended up marrying the much younger Linda (Julianne Moore). Now Earl is in the last stages of cancer, and as Linda grows more and more conflicted and guilty about getting the money in his will (she doesn't want it because she originally married him for his riches, but now has truly grown to love him), Earl's nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has been trying to reach Frank through the impossible hotline of his show, so that they might possibly be able to reconcile before his death.

Sort of like 1999's exciting German film, "Run Lola Run," "Magnolia" seems to always be on the move from one destination to the next, with the difference being that the latter picture actually has a noticeable amount of substance to match its liberatingly flashy style. For much of the film, the camera rarely stops moving, but it is not done in a way that becomes annoying or hints of hurried editing. Instead, like Anderson's previous "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" is a motion picture alive and well, with energy to spare, and a clear and bold signification of the pure love for the art of moviemaking.

Intriguing is the way that certain things might happen, and then the next scene will go back in time to when the previous scene was occurring, and simply follow a different character. This can be detected most easily when the day slowly edges towards night, and in one scene it will be dark, while in the next the evening will only be approaching. Not only is P.T. Anderson (as he likes to be called) a marvelous director, but his writing matches it in every way. The screenplay, which is known to have been sparked not only from a collection of ideas that Anderson then interweaved together, but also in the 9 songs that singer Aimee Mann has contributed to the picture, is one that very well could have been uneven, since a couple stories are usually bound to be more interesting than others, but this does not happen this time. Every character and each one of their lives is sympathetically brought to vibrant life, and because of its highly appropriate three-hour-plus length, enough time is spent with each central individual to get to know, understand, and care about them.

Aimee Mann's songs have been previously remarked as being one of the film's very own characters, and I couldn't agree more. They are beautiful pieces of musical art on their own, and each one has its rightful purpose in the picture, especially in the extremely fitting places that Anderson has placed them. A tour de force sequence that is certainly one of the most brilliantly heartbreaking moments in any film from 1999, Aimee Mann's quiet "Wise Up," filled with equal measures of hope and utter despair, begins to play on the soundtrack, and each character, no matter where they are, sings a couple verses of the song. The outcome is extraordinarily powerful and an approximately five-minute stretch of film that will never be forgotten.

Anderson has a way with casting the best actors in the biz, and then pulling superior work out of them, and "Magnolia" is no exception. Across the board, the performances are astounding, and they all work so perfectly together, in the context of the film, that no one could be pin-pointed as being better than the next. Worth noting, though, is John C. Reilly's earnest Jim Kurring; Jeremy Blackman's impressive turn as young Stanley Spector; Philip Baker Hall, as Jimmy Gator, the game show host at battle with himself, and with his recently discovered cancer; Julianne Moore's poignant and misunderstood Linda Partridge; Jason Robard's fully accurate portrayal of the cancer-stricken Earl Partridge; Melora Walter's internally struggling, drug-addicted Claudia Gator; and Philip Seymour Hoffman's sincere, caring Phil Parma. Tom Cruise, although no better than anyone else, should be individually mentioned for taking on such a brave, admirable supporting role, as Frank T.J. Mackey. Never has Cruise had such a wildly diverse character as the one he has been gifted with here, and his only misstep at all comes in his final tearful scene, which is slightly overplayed. It's also a welcome change of pace to see the return of the underrated Melinda Dillon, who has virtually disappeared from the movie radar in recent years, but is touching and effective as Rose, Jimmy Gator's suspicious, grief-stricken wife.

Everyone in "Magnolia" is inevitably leading up to a certain moment in time, one which has less to do with what is going to happen to them, since their lives are already reaching a crossroad that many will fail at and not be able to cross, and more to do with the way chance and coincidence can change a person's whole life forever. Although I have been outraged to discover that the surprising ending has been discussed in detail in certain reviews, there is no way I would dare give it away for those who haven't been fortunate enough to see this luminous motion picture. Suffice to say, what does happen may appear to come right out of left field, but there are clues throughout the film, and I think what it symbolizes is the way that the characters' decisions and choices that they have made in their lifetimes are crushing down and squeezing the life out of them, to the point where there is nowhere left for them to go. While what happens destroys some people's lives even further, it also ultimately brings other characters together, and the final scene is one filled with a grand, incomparable sense of hope and happiness.

"Magnolia" is surely a one-of-a-kind experience. It's difficult to fathom that Anderson could ever make another film as great as this one, but who knows? After seeing the enormous amount of talent he has, there's no doubt in my mind that he will continue to surprise, delight, and challenge his audiences well into the 21st Century.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman