Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson seems to me the kind of filmmaker you either love for the scope and ambition of his work or hate for the long, boring pretentiousness of it. Take, for instance, his four main films to date: "Boogie Nights" (1997), "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002), "There Will Be Blood" (2007), and the subject under discussion here, "Magnolia" (1999). They exhibit moments of beauty, grandeur, tension, excitement, humor, and passion, while also displaying lengthy stretches of dull, scattered, often downright weird storytelling, much of it clearly meant for the very sake of its own eccentricity.
Of the four films cited above, I enjoyed "Boogie Nights" the most for its bizarre but colorful characters and "Punch-Drunk Love" for its odd but fascinating narrative, things lacking in "There Will Be Blood," which seemed thematically confused, and "Magnolia," which rambles all over the place. While these latter two films are epic attempts of their kind, to be sure, they make me wish Anderson had tightened up the scripts before thrusting them upon us.
Nevertheless, there is much to like in "Magnolia," most of it in the first half. The idea is that life and everyone in it may be a series of interrelated coincidences, controlled or not controlled by fate. Remember the long-running James Burke series on PBS called "Connections"? Here, Anderson sets up five seemingly random episodes with five seemingly random sets of characters, all of whom eventually become intertwined with one another during a short, twenty-four-hour period. If that sounds a lot like the idea behind the later films "Crash" and "Babel," don't be surprised. "Magnolia" was their predecessor and probable inspiration, for better or for worse.
The first half of "Magnolia" is humorously ironic in its comic vignettes. Here, Anderson introduces us to Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a shy, conservative, upright, if slightly bumbling L.A. policeman, a genuine Mr. Nice Guy who just wants sincerely to help people and at the same time find himself the right woman to love. Just as we're wondering where his story is going, we meet another set of characters, starting with Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a rich television producer dying of cancer, who wants to reconnect with his long-estranged son; Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore), Earl's much younger wife, who is having a nervous breakdown at the impeding death of her husband; and Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Earl's caring, selfless personal nurse. At the same time, we meet a new set of characters: Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former television quiz kid, a loser longing for love, now reduced to selling furniture; and Solomon Solomon (Alfred Molina), Donnie's boss, who's firing him for incompetence. After them, we meet Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a self-help guru in the field of sex, whose seminars and books, "Seduce and Destroy," teach men how to increase their sexual appeal and dominate women; he's a BSer, a sexual evangelist, and a vain, macho phony. But how does he fit into the scheme of things, this supremely self-confident egomaniac?
Finally, there's Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the longtime TV quiz-show host of the very program Donnie appeared on years earlier. Ah-ha! The beginning of the connections. Jimmy is dying and trying to reconcile with his long-estranged daughter, Claudia (Melora Waters), now a drug addict. Surrounding him, there are Rose Gator (Melinda Dillon), Jimmy's long-suffering wife; Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a current whiz kid on Jimmy's show; Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), Stanley's would-be actor father, who is basically living off his son's paychecks; and Luis Guzman (Luis Guzman), an adult contestant on Jimmy's quiz show. Plus, there are a few hangers on, like Thurston Howell (Henry Gibson), a bar patron whose name just happens to be the same as the rich, snobby character on the old "Gilligan's Island" show, which leads us to infer that maybe, just maybe, all the names in "Magnolia" are meant to be comical (Guzman playing Guzman) or ironically symbolic, just as the large, ornamental magnolia flower itself might be a symbol for everything we're watching. Whew! A narrator (Ricky Jay) tells us what the movie has in store for us, and it's a promising if crowded beginning, as I say.
Unfortunately, at about the halfway point the humor ceases, and Anderson decides it's time to get serious. The film becomes one big stew, with too much brewing in the mix. At over three hours, it's just getting started at the ninety-minute mark when things go south.
All along, the background music, like "One Is the Loneliest Number," plays so loudly we can hardly understand the dialogue. That's OK for a while, even amusing, but after an hour and a half of it, it gets old and tiresome. It's also tiresome to see Anderson borrowing so much from Stanley Kubrick, again kind of funny at first but then irksome with the familiar songs, the slow pans, the endless dissolves, and the sense of space and emptiness that Kubrick so often used.
"Magnolia" is sometimes a clever and entertaining film, but, have I mentioned it's long? Not just long, but long about getting to its points, to its connections, because it has to set up all these many characters and their situations first before showing how they eventually interweave. By halfway, one can see it's a strange, rambling wreck of a movie, with many of the characters and episodes too bizarre to take in earnest.
For many folks, I'm sure "Magnolia" will seem a wonder, an admirable meshing of life's apparently meaningless moments into a beautifully finished mosaic. For me, however, the film is a could-have-been. The quiz-show conflict that develops around Stanley, for example, makes no logical sense in the context of what Stanley's fellow kid contestants and the show's adult coordinator know; likewise, Frank's magazine interview, the direction it takes, and Frank's reaction to the interviewer and her questions make no logical sense. In fact, little in the film makes any logical sense, which is clearly Anderson's point, that life is nonsensical, but without some ounce of credibility, neither the film nor life makes any sense. Unless Anderson's point is for one to stop trying to make sense of the senseless, in which case what's the sense of the movie? You see the circular nature of the reasoning here.
At around the halfway point, the movie becomes preoccupied with its own importance; Cruise and Moore are chewing up the scenery; almost all the characters from children to adults are spewing the f-word in every sentence; and the whole episodic affair drowns in melodramatic histrionics and sentimentality.
By the time we get to a plague of frogs (which, incidentally, actually has happened), it's pretty much all over. Anderson has stuffed his film with so many signs and symbols, so many Biblical prophecies, so many father-son-daughter discords, so many instances of family violence, so many meanings, and so many tongue-in-cheek winks that it finally slumps down under its own weight and becomes a shambles. But, dang, it's such an attractive shambles, you can't help wonder what a little editing might have done.
The New Line video engineers preserve the film's theatrical aspect ratio, 2.40:1, using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec. This results in what is probably as good a high-definition approximation of the original print as we could hope for. However, I'm guessing the original print was fairly soft, like the Blu-ray reproduction, with a slight veil over the image. Colors are natural enough, with decent contrasts, although detailing is not always too precise. A very fine inherent film grain provides texture to the picture.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 hardly makes its presence known until the rain of frogs; until then it contents itself with replicating dialogue smoothly, with a realistic musical bloom in the surrounds. For the most part, the bass, treble, and dynamics are modest, which is as it should be in a film like this.
The extras on the disc, all of them in standard definition, promote and spoof the film's cheekiness. First, there's the director's "Video Diary," seventy-two minutes, wherein director Anderson and many of his stars comment on the film, much of it while they're shooting it. After that is an extended "Frank T.J. Mackey Seminar," four minutes; a "Seduce and Destroy Infomercial," a minute and a half; and a music video, "Save Me," by Aimee Mann.
The extras conclude with a teaser trailer, a theatrical trailer, and nine TV spots; a meager twelve scene selections (oddly deficient for so long a film); English and Spanish spoken languages; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Magnolia" is an overly ambitious film that never knows when to stop. Anderson begins with a promising premise, creates a good, semi-humorous first half, and then pours on so much coincidental silliness in the second half, it rather spoils everything that went before.
And did I mention it's long?