Magnolia (1999)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


Okay, so I just wrote about Lone Star and the slight ridiculousness of all the intersecting, overlapping storylines of its ensemble cast.  Magnolia deals with the same thing, but right up front Anderson acknowledges the role of coincidence in this story.  Between this narrated prologue and the climactic frog-raining scene, there seem to be more powerful factors at play.  In Magnolia we are just characters wandering blindly through a slightly magical world fueled by unwittingly-shared emotion.

This three hour film is kind of incredible, if only because of the effective way these storylines are woven together.  It takes some kind of genius to give us all of these characters and splice up their stories in a way that constantly maintains the emotion and momentum of the story.  When one character is facing a huge decision, so are all the others.  These short stories, all told over the course of a single night, are all bound together by a shared feeling of isolation and, eventually, coincidence.

Most of this might seem a little too unlikely, but Jesus Christ, it’s woven together so effortlessly.  It feels like the score is underneath every single scene, and a character’s personal breakdown is imbued with the weight of the world.  Each of these characters experience some kind of crisis of faith, and every character is given their moment in the spotlight, a monologue that you have to imagine an actor would love to chew on.

There’s a lot to touch on, and I’ll get there, but I think the lasting effect of this film has more to do with the emotion generated and propelled through the film.  The movie is beautifully shot and scored, and the camera whips, zooms and slides this way and that much in the way of 2016’s La La Land.  There is a careful choreography to every moment of the film that tires me out just thinking about it.

I think Paul Thomas Anderson is too good of a director to be known for just one thing, but he does use a lot of long, tracking shots.  One of the more famous ones is at the beginning of Boogie Nights, and he has a series of impressive tracking shots in Magnolia as well.

It’s easy to miss the technical precision of these shots because in the moment they are not flashy whatsoever, but then you realize how many moving parts there are.  This style of shooting immerses us in the world of the film, and it makes everything feel more alive.

Every scene of Magnolia feels this alive.  The whole thing feels like a breathing organism, partially because of the emotional undercurrent of the film.  Characters who never intersect experience the same feeling in the same moment.  It’s as if there is something in the air that just burrows into every character, like a shark smelling blood in the water and hurrying through the world like the camera in the shot above.

Something is moving in this world, something connecting all the characters, but they don’t know it.  As part of Anderson’s style of shooting, the camera moves often and quickly.  Rather than cutting from one shot to the next, he will whip the camera quickly as if to catch up with a character who is only feet away.  The effect can be tiring, but it makes every scene that much more frantic, as if everything is about to fall apart.  And in some ways it is.

These are characters on their last legs.  Two of them are dying, and the rest are reaching their breaking point.  The common element between each of the vignettes is a television game show called “What Do Kids Know?” hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a Bob Barker type of character.

Jimmy is much-loved publicly, but his life is a mess, made clear by a confession he makes to his wife at the end of the film, after his facade has been torn down by a disease which is killing him.  He can no longer hold it together, and this is when he confesses to her the affairs and the possibility that he molested their daughter who will no longer talk to him.  His wife seems to have known about the affairs, but she, understandably, leaves him after the news about their daughter.

Jimmy’s show is produced by Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a man dying of lung cancer and restricted to hospice care at the hands of live-in nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Earl has little energy left, and when his younger wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) can’t stand to look at him out of guilt, Earl asks Phil to contact his son, which presents its own challenges.

Earl’s son is Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) a motivational speaker whose rhetoric is loaded with red flags in regards to gender relations and whose audience is extremely disturbed.  He hates his father, and a reporter slowly digs into him during a television interview, revealing Frank’s deep insecurity.

Linda is important too.  Throughout the first part of the film she is busy getting doctors to write prescriptions for her husband which she seems eager to take herself.  Eventually she has a breakdown and confesses her guilt, saying she never loved Earl and married him only for the money, but now she doesn’t want anything from his will.  She will later attempt to kill herself before a kid we met earlier in the film finds her and calls the cops, saving her life.

We meet that kid when he meets police officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a straight-laced, lonely man of the law.  Jim does his job well, and he’s a sympathetic figure, but he has no sense of humor, and his yearning for a female companion is quite desperate.  In response to a domestic disturbance call he meets Claudia (Melora Walters), the son of Jimmy Gator.  Jim takes a strange liking to Claudia despite her apparent and severe drug use.  Later they will go on a date, but she rejects him for reasons he doesn’t understand.

There’s ‘quiz kid’ Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) who competes on the “What Do Kids Know?” game show until the pressure finally gets to him.  He rebels, in how own timid way, against his father’s oppressive and aggressive nature.

Lastly, I think, is former ‘quiz kid’ Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), now thirty years removed from his brief childhood fame and who desperately pines after a local bartender, Brad.  Brad has braces, and Donnie is so foolishly eager to please that he elects to get braces himself despite having no need for them.

At the bar Donnie gets drunk and more desperate and decides to rob his place of employment before Officer Jim Kurring spots him.

Now, everyone’s story seems to follow a similar trajectory so that we constantly cross-cut between narratives as the music swells.  Though they may have no relationship (other than coincidental) with each other, their stories are presented as if they’re on the same exact emotional arc.  In the end, their narratives culminate with frogs flying down from the sky, peppering the ground with force.

This isn’t just a playful occurrence, either, as the frogs rain down like bullets.  In some cases they just ask for the character’s attention, but in other moments the frogs put a stop to the character’s action.  Donnie’s robbery is interrupted, as is Jimmy Gator’s attempted suicide.  The ambulance carrying Linda to the hospital flips over in response to the frog storm, and all Frank can do is glance over his shoulder at the strange phenomenon before returning his attention to his dying father.

After the frog incident, the characters mostly take steps to move forward, at least with the exception of the recently deceased Earl Partridge and the soon to be deceased Jimmy Gator.

Magnolia is about a long, dark night.  A conventional narrative film will have the “dark night of the soul” at the end of act 2, and Magnolia is basically just that part of a movie, stretched out for nearly three hours.  It’s about a tone more than any individual story.  When you break up the vignettes that make up the film, there is nothing complex to the story.  It’s only when you hold them up together that they become more meaningful, mainly because the emotion is shared by so many people onscreen even though they don’t realize it.

The opening prologue (as well as the epilogue) acknowledge the role of coincidence and unexplainable occurrences in life.  When frogs rain down around Southern California, the camera zooms in on a picture frame in Claudia’s apartment that reads “but it did happen.”  I guess this is in reference to a June 1997 tornado that passed over a small town in Mexico and dropped toads from the sky.

The point is made early in the film, as if to justify breaking the rules of a narrative story (Chekhov’s gun type of thing).  In another scene, nurse Phil tells a man on the phone that ‘this is the scene in a movie when…’ as he attempts to get Frank Mackey on the line.  He’s right, this is the scene in the movie when…

The film acknowledges itself and bends and breaks its own medium’s conventions.  Magnolia could easily not work, and it probably shouldn’t.  It’s a strange film that requires a bunch of awesome performances that vibe with the self-assured tone and emotion of the story.  Why should it be so compelling to watch a woman express regret over the ill-advised marriage to a man for his money?  Why is any of this important?  It certainly benefits from the performers, many of whom were the first choice for the characters they play.  Anderson wrote the part of Frank, for example, specifically for Cruise, capturing a certain manic energy he often has and which he definitely emphasizes here.

So, Magnolia is a beast of a movie, and it’s exhausting to think about let alone to have made.  The film is about death, about fathers and tragedy and some of those unexplainable, hard to believe coincidences that happen in life.  It’s a great movie, a bit like a roller coaster to use a cliche, and so many individual moments are riveting.  You can’t really look away.

Up Next: The Shop Around the Corner (1940), The Wizard of Oz (1939), 9/11 (2002)

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