Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Film: Magnolia
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.


  1. Awesome film--one of the best in the entire 1001 book.

  2. I wasn't blown away by the film when I saw it last year, but I really enjoyed it. I also think it's Tom Cruise's best performance.

  3. Well, I still have 450 or so in the book, most of which I haven't seen. I'm not ready to call it one of the best--but I did think it was great.

    I like Cruise as an actor. I think he's a nutter in real life, but he's a very competent actor. This film really pushed him, and he rose to it.

  4. I freakin' HATED this movie. I might need to see it again, because it's been many-a-year. But... yeah, I hated it. A lot.

  5. It is freaking great film,my fave from PTA,I was feeling watching a Robert Altman film at its best!!

  6. I'm actually a little surprised, Nick. You seem very much to like rambling movies where everything comes to a certain point of coincidence.

    David--the Altman comparison is a good one. I didn't think of that, but you're right.

  7. Sorry, but I didn't care for this film very much. About the only thing good I have to say about it is Aimee Mann's songs were enjoyable. Frankly, "rain of frogs" is an excellent three word review that symbolizes all the reasons the film didn't get much recognition, outside of some movie fans. By the time the film got to that scene I was begging for it to be over.

    @"Kevin Smith" - nice inside joke using that name to recommend the film.

  8. Heh. The "Kevin Smith" thing went right over my head.

    I admit that my respect for this film comes mainly from the performances and the way it is put together. I can really take or leave the rain of frogs.

  9. Well... let's put it this way. This was just compared to a Robert Altman film. If you don't count Popeye (and most don't), I've only seen one Altman film: Gosford Park. And I hate that movie even more than this one.

  10. Heh. M*A*S*H is worth watching, and I (surprisingly) liked Nashville far more than I thought I would.

    That said, I've never been able to get more than 20 minutes into Short Cuts.

  11. I've seen Magnolia a couple of times, and I always find it overpowering in the best possible way. The disparate storylines, the coincidence theme, the way things come together, the song, and yes, the rain of frogs - I love them all. The opening bit about coincidence? One of my favorite segments of any film ever. I'm kind of lukewarm on PT Anderson overall, but Magnolia is the one film of his I truly love.

  12. I watched this as a part of Ryan McNeil's Blindspot series. Having watched it, I wonder now what took me so long. It might have been the size of the cast. I have trouble (often) with Altman because of the number of people and plots going on, and Magnolia looked to be all about that. But I'm glad I watched it, and I'll slate time for it again in the future.

  13. I totally recognize your reaction, I felt the same and consider it my favorite movie off all time. Great review here.

  14. Great post, Steve. I not only consider Magnolia the best PT Anderson film, it's also one of my 10-15 favorite films of all time. I'll strongly defend this one from the haters and need to write about it again some time.

    I think one of the reasons Magnolia is so remarkable is because Anderson takes a lot of chances and goes for everything. This is also why it generates so much hatred. There are very few great movies that are loved by everyone. All the actors are at the top of their game here, and Anderson never lets them down.

  15. I agree completely. The film contains some of my favorite performances from a number of its cast members, which is startling, considering the careers many of them have had. I find myself, for instance, continually going back to the John C. Reilly character talking to himself in his car. That's such a human moment, so personal and potentially embarrassing. It's one of my favorite things from the film.

    1. That's a great moment. His character is intriguing because we initially feel sorry for him, but he's one of the truly genuine guys in the movie and grows on you. He's not a very good cop and recognizes it, but he's trying to improve. That scene is a perfect example of why he's such a fascinating character.

    2. Right--he's not a good cop, but he wants to think of himself as a good cop. Those in-the-car monologues are his own way of telling himself that he could be a good cop.

      As you say, though, he's genuine. He's one of the few really good people in the film, and the speech at the end to William H. Macy is another favorite moment. Sometimes we all just need a break.