The Epic Intimacy of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999)


Following the critical and financial success of his second film Boogie Nights, New Line Cinema told 29 year old Paul Thomas Anderson that he could make whatever movie he wanted. That movie became Magnolia – a 3 hour+ epic which dissects the way of life in the San Fernando Valley over one 24-hour period through a sprawling cast of characters.

As Ricky Jay’s mysterious narrator tells us in the film’s theatrical trailer, Magnolia holds many stories. There’s the story of a boy-genius (Jeremy Blackman), the game show host (Philip Baker Hall), the ex boy-genius (William H. Macy), the dying man (Jason Robards), his lost son (Tom Cruise), his wife (Julianne Moore), the caretaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the police officer in love (John C. Reilly), and the estranged daughter (Melora Walters). The narrator also re-assures us that this “will all make sense in the end”.

But here’s the thing: there’s a lot about Magnolia that, apparently, doesn’t make sense. What’s with the re-occurring subliminal messages to Exodus 8:2? Why does it rain frogs at the end? What do the three urban legends at the beginning have to do with anything? Why are all most of the songs on the soundtrack by Aimee Mann? And what on Earth is the deal with the impromptu musical number in the middle? It’s questions and idiosyncrasies like these that give Magnolia it’s longevity. Because it is so rich and layered, its a film you can really get your teeth stuck into and find fresh nuance in with every revisit. In the same way people fell in love with TV shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire because of the long-form storytelling that the medium offers, Anderson’s titanic soap opera is equally in-depth with it’s select tales. It’s a daring film. One of the most daring I’ve ever seen. Anderson doesn’t attempt to break any huge forbidden taboos, chasing instead to make a film that simply tells a story of people and characters in order to find the magic in the mundane and the beauty in the morbid. It’s a fearless leap into grand melodrama and once his feet leave the ground, Anderson never looks back.

Magnolia, which owes a great debt both structurally and conceptually to Robert Altman’s fantastic Short Cuts and Nashville, is a long film, no doubt about it. But in my opinion, the bloated running time is one of it’s strengths. In an interview following the film’s release the filmmaker said he wanted to put “an epic spin on topics that don’t necessarily get the epic treatment”. Indeed, dying cancer patients, child-abuse, infidelity, lost-fame, love-sick cops and overly sensitive nurses don’t sound like the usual subjects to get their own American epic, least of all in the same movie. If Magnolia were a 100 minute or even a 2 hour movie (which by all means it could have been) then many of it’s most powerful and touching moments would have been condensed or axed all together. For example, would we have been treated to the sweeping tracking shot that leads Quiz Kid Donnie Smith into the Smiling Peanut bar set to the sound of Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger?” Would Linda Partridge’s deliciously vulgar outburst to Pat Healy’s chemist be so drawn out and apocalyptic? Would we have been able to see the blossoming of Jim and Claudia’s relationship in quite so much detail? More to the point, would the quirky side characters like Luis, Thurston Howell, Burt Ramsay and Solomon Solomon even exist? To imagine a version of Magnolia without these ingredients is a terrifying thought to me.

As it stands, Magnolia may be overlong but it’s length allows it to be organic and ambiguous, unafraid of exploring tangents it has no intention of completing. We never discover who killed the man in Marcie’s closet or the identity of the mysterious Worm. Even Jimmy Gator’s story is left unresolved. The film gets distracted and moves naturally, shifting focus as it pleases. In short: much like life itself.

Every time I revisit the film, I am left in awe of the actors. Take just one of these performances and place it in a lesser film and it would be guaranteed an Academy Award. But because there are so many great performances in the film the Academy struggled to reach beyond a supporting nomination for Tom Cruise (to be fair, 1999 was an unusually incredible year for movies). Unsurprisingly, Magnolia did go on to sweep up every ensemble award it was nominated for. Deservedly so.

All the actors in Magnolia get their big moment and there are performances of all shapes and sizes. Julianne Moore and Tom Cruise are let loose to tear up every scene they inhabit, spewing “fuck”‘s and “cunt”‘s at anyone who crosses their path. It is a frenzied pair of performances, both unpredictable and cathartic. It’s no coincidence that their characters are together in their final scenes. Maybe together they will find purpose. Cruise especially shines, exploring territory far out of his comfort zone as the sex-guru Frank T. J. Mackey. Watching him sit “quietly judging” April Grace’s interviewer as she digs too deep into his past is one of the most spine-tingling uses of a close up I can recall. Anderson jokingly guessed this film was an exorcism for the actor. Who wouldn’t want to let-loose after spending two years playing the all-too straight laced Dr. Bill Hartford for Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut? It remains a highlight of Cruise’s career.

William H. Macy is given tragedy and self-pity, turning in a heartbreaking picture of a man lost in a world he has no idea how to navigate. Philip Baker Hall and Jason Robards (in his final screen-role) are sublime as dying men Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge. Robards gets one of the film’s greatest moments, delivering a showstopping monologue about regret that eases the film chillingly into it’s last movement. While Earl fades on his deathbed, Baker Hall’s Jimmy, a legendary game-show host, is suddenly faced with his illness and told he only has a matter of weeks to live. Jimmy feels he should right the wrongs in his life, more specifically his relationship with estranged daughter Claudia. Anderson has repeatedly spoken of his distaste for the Jimmy Gator character and in the original script, Jimmy ended up burning alive in a house fire. In the final version, Anderson slights him even further by granting him to conclusion whatsoever. The perfect end for such a cowardly character.

John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman are the angels of Magnolia, both sensitive and caring men in occupations dedicated to helping others. They are naive – Hoffman’s character cannot help but let his emotions get the better of him and weep when faced with a difficult situation and Reilly’s Jim Kurring is struck when Claudia curses in front of him – but they mean well and live their lives the right way.

Claudia, Jimmy Gator’s daughter and the object of Jim Kurring’s affections, is played by Melora Walters; a wonderful actress who tragically seems to have disappeared from movies lately. Her performance gives the film it’s heart and soul. She is damaged goods, subject to sexual abuse from her father she has grown up to be an insecure cocaine addict who sleeps with men from seedy bars simply to numb herself from the pain eating away at her. But beneath the troubled exterior lies a beautiful soul. Walters gives Claudia so much vulnerability and life that every second she’s on screen you just want to hold her and tell her everything is going to be okay. It’s easy to see why Jim is so taken by her as she opens the door to her apartment. The moment he locks eyes with her the film is struck by a lightning bolt. Love at first sight? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just the first sign of an equation being completed. Together, these two have the potential to make it. Anderson once described Claudia as “my love” and I’m sure many of us have felt the same way after seeing the movie a few times.

There’s so much going on in this movie. It has so many movements and colour that it at once feels like one, long, rambling scene and a hundred tiny ones. My favourite moment in Magnolia though isn’t an obvious one. It isn’t the opening prologue or the infamous Wise Up sequence, it isn’t even the shower of frogs or Julianne Moore’s breakdown in the pharmacy. No, my favourite sequence in Magnolia begins as Stanley Spector refuses to take the stage in the final round of What Do Kids Know? and Jon Brion shifts into a brand new music cue.

We see Frank’s assistant Dock marching the hotel corridors ready to hand him a crucial phone call. We see Phil on the other end, waiting patiently as the dogs bark at the rain and Earl slowly fades from life. Stanley turns the tables on the adults and confronts Jimmy Gator while the crew and audience can do nothing bit sit perplexed and watch the show slip out of their control. Linda returns home and contemplates killing herself from car fumes while Jim Kurring investigates a Jay-walker and finds himself in the middle of a shootout without his gun. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith rests his head on a toilet seat and makes a bad decision just as a teary eyed Claudia holds a rolled up dollar bill in her hand, wondering wether or not cocaine is a better substitute for honesty in her upcoming date. The scene reaches it’s crescendo as Linda tears the phone from Phil’s grasp just as Frank finally gets on the line and has an outburst at his assistant (“What I want you to do Janet, is I want you to do your fucking job!”) and Stanley makes a hasty exit from the gameshow set as the producers shut it down. The scene ends with Frank quietly storming down the hotel halls having come to a conclusion about his father. But what is it?

What I love about this sequence is the way it connects all of the characters at crucial moments purely through music, editing and camerawork. It’s the closest thing Magnolia has to an action sequence (at least until the frogs start falling) and when Jon Brion’s score swells at specific points my heart almost skips a beat. It’s a beautiful showcase for cinema as opera, of grand filmmaking and the power of montage. I’m getting chills just thinking about it.

Magnolia is also an important movie in Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. While Boogie Nights anchored him as one of the hottest young directors in Hollywood, Magnolia skyrocketed him into a league very few filmmakers get to experience. His visual style became much more his own rather than the Scorsese-infused imitations of Boogie Nights and Hard Eight and his writing became much more abstract and deeper before he completely re-invented himself stylistically with minor/major masterworks Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. You can see a filmmaker bored by convention and rules. Just listen to the way he mixes the songs far louder than the dialogue. In the film’s final scene, Jim gives an emapassioned speech to Claudia but for Anderson, Aimee Mann’s singing is more important.Magnolia also marks the last time he worked with many actors he helped discover or launch into new phases of their career. John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman probably owe their entire career from the 2000s to Anderson. More so, I feel that this is the film that saw Paul Thomas Anderson finally become the great filmmaker he was always destined to be.

As with practically all of P. T. Anderson films, every time I watch Magnolia I get sucked in and can’t let go. I love every character as if they were near and dear to me, and in many ways they are. It might sound hokey, but Magnolia moves me in ways no other film is capable of. It both scares and inspires me. A tour de force titan of high drama and epic storytelling on a very human, intimate scale. Who knew you could be so big and so small at exactly the same time? The vision is so clear and brave and the writing is poetic and wonderfully observed that after sitting down with this movie you feel like you’ve learned and lived many of life’s wonderful and painful lessons. It’s a daunting movie to tackle but an endlessly rewarding one. Steven Spielberg once named the starchild at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey as the most hopeful image ever committed to film but I think Anderson topped it. As Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” reaches it’s peak and Claudia looks into the audience and smiles in Magnolia‘s very last frames, you can’t help but feel that absolutely everything will be fine.

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