New Line // 1999 // 188 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 21st, 2010
Things fall down. People look up. And when it rains, it pours.
As the book says, "We might be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."
Police Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly, Step Brothers) attempts to find love, serve God and make the right decisions on-the-job.
An elderly billionaire named Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, The Ballad of Cable Hogue) is dying, and his trophy wife Linda (Julianne Moore, The Forgotten) is suffering from severe depression. Earl's caretaker Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote) is attempting to re-connect Earl with his estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackie (Tom Cruise, Collateral).
A game show host named Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall, Secret Honor) has learned that he has cancer, and attempts to reconcile some things with his wife (Melinda Dillon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and daughter (Melora Walters, Big Love) during his final days.
A young game show contestant named Stanley (Jeremy Blackman, Crown Heights) attempts to continue his incredible hot streak, while a former contestant (William H. Macy, Fargo) mourns the lost glories of his youth.
Over the course of 188 minutes, Magnolia tells the story of how the lives of these people connect and collide in a series of fascinating and mysterious ways.
The depth of feeling contained within Magnolia is nearly incomparable. In a steady, assured yet exhilarating manner, Paul Thomas Anderson introduces us to a series of characters that all share one thing in common: they have a sense of deep longing in their heart. The particular type of longing varies from character to character, but it's there in every single one of them. Officer Jim Kurring longs to find someone to share his heart and his life with. Jimmy Gator longs to earn the forgiveness of his wife and his daughter. Stanley Spector longs for the love of his father. Frank T.J. Mackie longs to bury the memories of his father. Donnie Smith longs for the cute bartender with the cute braces. You get the idea. Buried within all of these people are strong emotions: fear, love, anger, regret and pain. Magnolia is an epic symphony of honesty and empathy, allowing the music to slowly but surely rise to a boiling point as each individual confronts (by choice or by force) their most personal conflicts.
Anderson wrote and directed the film very quickly after the mega-success of Boogie Nights, largely just because he wanted to remove the inevitable pressure of having to deliver another critically acclaimed masterpiece. Ironically enough, he wound up creating what I personally believe to be his greatest film to date (and this comes from someone who thinks both Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood are truly great motion pictures).
I can't help but think that the self-imposed fast pace with which Anderson created the film benefited this particular story; the screenplay seems to move from place to place in a semi-improvisational yet deeply intuitive manner. Have you ever had a fit of inspiration late at night? One of those moments in which you grab the keyboard and furiously type out your surprisingly lucid thoughts before the inspiration leaves you? I'd be willing to bet that Anderson has. There are scenes in this film that seem to have been created organically rather than mechanically, if you know what I mean. I wonder whether Anderson ever thought about second-guessing himself? There are so many scenes that work marvelously in the film that quite probably looked fairly silly and puzzling on paper. The scene in which the entire cast sings along to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up," should come across as a forced contrivance, but it doesn't because it's what feels right at the time.
It feels right because Magnolia does a masterful job of translating the deep feelings of the character to the viewer, and by the time that moment arrives (well past the two-hour mark), we are so in-tune with the emotions of the film that we are willing to suspend our disbelief. We not only accept the singing, but also the infamous frogs and the convenient connections and the wild coincidences. It's not like we haven't been mentally prepared for this, anyway: the film opens with an excellent series of true stories (narrated by Ricky Jay) that would be decried as ludicrous if presented as fiction (such as the story of a man who lived in a place called Greenberry Hill who was murdered by three men with the last names Green, Berry and Hill). They're full of such astonishing coincidences, there's no way they could be anything other than reality. There's a lovely scene in which Hoffman realizes that he's in the middle of a moment that seems like a clichéd scene from a movie. "But I think they have those scenes in movies because they really happen," he pleads.
We feel for these people. We feel for Jim, whose despair is so potent when he loses his gun on the job. We feel for Marcie, whose fears her personal addictions and weaknesses will ruin the one good thing she has found in her life. We feel for Linda, who has realized too late that she actually loves the man she married for money. We feel for Donnie, whose glory days were behind him before he reached puberty. We feel for Stanley, who doesn't want glory days but just a normal childhood. We even feel for Frank, whose despicable behavior masks bitterness and insecurity. We watch these characters and others work their way towards their day's destination, growing to understand them and connect with them even more each time Anderson returns to them. The apocalyptic event that occurs late in the film has been interpreted many ways. I like to think of it as a physical manifestation of what is occurring in the lives of these characters: a miracle, or at least an awe-inspiring coincidence. When the morning comes, the wreckage is cleaned and life returns to normal, the default settings will have changed. Things may be better, they may be worse, but the status quo has permanently shifted because these people have confronted the things that haunt them.
I could rave forever about the performances; each is so good that it deserves at least a paragraph of analysis. Instead I'll just note that this is a remarkable cast, but I have to say that Magnolia is one of the high points of the careers of almost everyone involved (particularly Cruise, in a rare performance that actually allows us to see beneath the surface). I could spend just as much time simply list-making profound little moments that I love throughout, from Frank's laughably childish "silent judging" to Phil's telephone order to that priceless final shot. The movie is so rich on every level; there's truly something new to discover with each new viewing.
Magnolia looks good in hi-def, if hardly stunning. The film has a somewhat soft, low-key look to begin with, so the images don't exactly pop off the screen. Blacks are reasonably deep and shading is strong, though detail is slightly less impressive than I was hoping it would be. A pleasing, natural measure of grain is present throughout. More impressive is the audio, which is truly immersive and involving stuff. Watching the film this time around, I realized just how marvelously complex the musical sound design of the film is, as Anderson permits Jon Brion's minimalist score to bleed into the pop numbers or even overwhelm the dialogue when he feels it's appropriate. The soundtrack really has a life of its own in the movie, punctuated by those oh-so-memorable Aimee Mann songs that appear throughout. The extras are hauled over from the previous two-disc DVD release: a 72-minute video diary (well worth a look), some trivial extended scenes featuring Cruise, an Aimee Mann music video, and a whole bunch of trailers and tv spots. Too bad a commentary or retrospective documentary wasn't provided for this release.
Though some have found it challenging and frustrating, I believe Magnolia to be an American masterpiece. The Blu-ray release honestly doesn't do a whole lot to improve upon the DVD, but I strongly recommend owning this film in some format.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 188 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Extended Scenes
* Video Diaries
* Music Video
* Trailers/TV Spots