Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Elwood's Essentials #10 - Magnolia

Title: Magnolia
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Released: 1999
Starring: Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Melinda Dillon, Philip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters

Plot: Nine interlinked stories play out over the course of twenty hours in the San Fernando Valley.

Review: Clocking in at just over three hours epic would certainly be the easiest way to describe Director Anderson’s follow up the critically acclaimed “Boogie Nights” which honestly is just one of those films I just didn’t get. Still on the back of its success he was given the opportunity to make any film he wanted with the head of New Line Cinema at the time Michael De Luca signing off on the film without even hearing a plot pitch, while showing so much faith in the director that even giving Anderson rights to the final cut. While it might from the end result seem like Anderson may have been taking the piss slightly considering its length, he had originally wanted to shoot something small and quick only for the script to keep growing as kept thinking of actors he wanted to write for.

Thankfully having been afforded such a generous runtime we truly get to know the mixed and varied inhabitants of Anderson’s vision of LA who include
  • Police officer Jim Kurring (Reilly)
  • Jimmy Gator (Hall) - Host of the long running game show “What Do Kids Know?” and his estranged daughter Claudia (Walters)
  • Child quiz prodigy Stanley (Blackman)
  • The grown up former child quiz prodigy Donnie (Macy)
  • The terminally ill TV producer Earl Partridge (Partridge), his trophy wife Linda (Moore) and his nurse Phil (Hoffman)
  • Pick up artist Frank Mackey (Cruise)
So what ties all these characters together? The simple answer is coincidence as established by the opening monologue which presents us with three cases of coincidence before moving onto the bigger (let alone more complex) example which is the film itself.....this is of course all before it memorably rains frogs!

Each of these characters get their time to shine while the links they all share slowly revel themselves be it through family bloodlines or just through chance encounter. By the end of the day a line can be drawn between them all while its simply staggering how Anderson manages to piece it all together and more interestingly is that no element of his plotting ever feels like a forced connection. Even without the connections between the characters this is still a fascinating film to watch for the stories on their own thanks to some pitch perfect casting.

As a result of such great casting which sees him reuniting with several members of his "Boogie Nights" cast, each of the cast truly embody their characters creating as an result a truly immersive experience as switch between these characters as their stories slowly develop from the Jim’s bumbling attempts at being a good cop only to frequently fail when not seemingly pretending he is on “Cops”. Elsewhere we get the almost the almost identical fates of Stanley and Donnie who both are blessed and cursed with being child genius’s and whose life stories might share more similarities than we first expect, as Donnie’s parents blew his prize money, while for the present day child genius Stanley it would seem that his father has equally similar plans for the potential prize money Stanley is set to win on the show. The plot threads involving this game show interestingly coming from experience gained by Anderson when he worked as an assistant on “Quiz Kid Challenge” while making me how much was actually based on what happened during this time.

Needless to say the standout here is Cruise playing essentially the kind of guy you would expect Tom Cruise to be much like Fight Club’s Tyler Durdan to be what Brad Pitt is like (only perhaps alittle less psycho) so of course it makes perfect sense to have him playing the sexist pussy hound, who has built his life philosophies around sport lays and being the alpha male. Ideals we see him peddling through his self-help groups with all the passion and conviction of a televangelist. The downside to his performance here through is that it does tend to overpower the film and will no doubt be the one character that most people remember from the film, especially when we get to see here Cruise clearly firing on all cylinders.

An emotional roller-coaster here Anderson manages to juggle sudden changes in mood and tone, as he crafts here a film which is frequently brutal in its tone as it manages to be humorous such Jims’ flustered attempts to ask out the terminally neurotic Claudia, let alone the incredibly surreal coffee shop date they ultimately go on or Phil ordering adult magazine over the phone in his attempts to track down his employer’s estranged son Frank. At the same time he is never afraid to counter these moments with something more powerful like Donnie’s drunken breakdown and appeals for love from a clearly uninterested bar tender or Stanley having his request to use the bathroom constantly ignored so that he is left to wet himself on live television.

At the same time the soundtrack provided by Aimee Mann perfectly suits the tone of the film, with Anderson bringing it to the forefront or pushing it to the background as required so that it’s never being used to establish any false sense of tone or mood, though at the same time including the surreal use of “Wise Up” which features the characters simultaneously singing along to the track in a scene seemingly homage by Richard Kelly’s use of “Mad World” in “Donnie Darko”.

While Paul Thomas Anderson might not on the top of my list of favourite director (I know shame on me), let alone the kind of director whose films are usually accompanied by a lot of deep thinking regarding their themes and ideas, here he gives us a film which even when watched without over analysing each scene it remains an immersive experience even with its weighty run time this is undeniably truly masterful film making which even those of who didn’t get his other films can still appreciate.


  1. This is one I watch at lest once every year. I know a lot of people put "There Will be Blood" as their favorite of his, but for me It's Magnolia. I agree his balance of tone between humor and drama is very well done.

  2. Personally I'm not a huge fan of P.T. Anderson and "There Will Be Blood" while certainly a good film wouldn't make my top list, especially when Day Lewis transfers his performance from the superior "Gangs of New York". Still this is one of the few Anderson films I love.


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