Format: DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television.
I’d heard of Magnolia.
I’d heard of it, but I’m not sure I was entirely prepared for it. This film is overwhelming, and I mean that only positively, only as something that is true and not as something critical of what Paul Thomas Anderson created with this film. This film is relentless and unrelenting and doesn’t stop except for brief moments. And it’s three hours long.
I’m not going to attempt a plot summary here, because Magnolia is not about plot. It is instead about a series of characters whose lives all intertwine at a single point in time. It is about the power of coincidence and chance, the failure of people and their brutality to those who they love the most, abuse, and the failure of fathers to their children. As the movie spins around and around, jumping from character to character and story to story, it becomes gripping almost in spite of itself—these stories have no real obvious connection in general except in the ways that some of the characters are related. So rather than go point by point, it’s a better idea to give a sort of story through-line. Essentially, there are two twined stories here that meet at the end.
We have quiz show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), host of the longest running quiz show on television. The show pits three kids against three adults. Jimmy is dying of cancer that has metastasized into his bones. Jimmy’s daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) is a cocaine addict who may have possibly been molested by her father. In any event, she’s not on speaking terms with him, and won’t accept him into her apartment when he tries to tell her that he is dying.
Claudia’s apartment is investigated by Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). Kurring is a decent cop who doesn’t get a great deal of respect from other officers as we learn in an opening scene. Called to Claudia’s apartment on a call from neighbors, he decides that he likes her and would like to see her, not knowing about her drug issues (although it’s evident that he suspects).
Meanwhile, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former champion on Jimmy Gator’s quiz show, is down on his luck. Fired from his job and destitute, he has put his entire being into the idea of getting braces in the hopes that it will help him land the male bartender with whom he is infatuated. But even here he is shot down and mocked by an effeminate barfly (Henry Gibson).
One of the current kid champions of the game show is Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), who is oppressed in many ways by his father (Michael Bowen). Now close to earning a small fortune on the show, Stanley is browbeaten by his father to keep performing because he needs the money. In the game that we see, Stanley, nervous and emotionally abused, pees himself right around the same time Jimmy Gator collapses on stage.
The other set of connected stories begins with former television producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is dying and bedridden. His wife Linda (Julianne Moore) steals his medication and has some of her own. She married the old man for his money, but has since decided that she truly loves him and wants to rewrite the will so that she gets nothing just to prove it.
The problem is that if she has the will declared invalid, everything goes to Earl’s son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a professional womanizer who has created a series of misogynist self-help guides and seminars teaching men how to essentially trick women into sex. Virtually disowned by his father and of no interest to the step-mother, Frank spends a good deal of the film being interviewed, lying about his past, and being called on his lies by a woman named Gwenovier (April Grace). Additionally, he is contacted by Earl’s live-in nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to be informed that the father he has essentially disowned is dying.
And all of this, assisted by a rain of frogs, comes together at the end.
It’s a lot to keep track of, and the film offers little or no warning when switching from one story to the next. As mentioned earlier, this film is relentless in showing us all of these characters at their most vulnerable moments. This culminates in an emotionally devastating scene of the characters, each in his or her turn, singing along with Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” Few scenes in movie history are this powerful or poignant, or as painful, or frankly as beautiful. If the rest of the film were terrible, it might be rescued by this scene.
What’s truly astounding here—more than these intertwined stories and the emotional intensity, that is—is the performances across the board. John C. Reilly, for instance, is an underrated dramatic actor, and proves it nowhere better than here. It’s also probably Tom Cruise’s best performance in his career, and that’s coming from someone who, in general, likes Tom Cruise as an actor. The same could be said of Julianne Moore, which is again, remarkable considering her career. There are also some great bit roles from actors I like quite a bit. Patton Oswalt shows up for a minute or so at the start, for instance. I also need to mention the great Ricky Jay, who plays the quiz show producer and the narrator who bookends the film. If you don’t know who Ricky Jay is, look him up on YouTube. He’s one of the greatest card trick magicians to ever walk on a stage. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
Magnolia is about those moments of vulnerability when we are at our weakest and our strongest. It is about all of us at our best and our worst, and how for many of us, those two things happen at the same time.
I’m overwhelmed. I’m also stunned that it was nominated for only three Oscars, lost all three, and wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Stupid Academy.
Why to watch Magnolia: It’s holy-shit good.
Why not to watch: If you don’t pay attention the whole time, you’ll get lost.