Published December 1, 1999
Magnolia, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is like David O. Russell’s Three Kings in being an impressive display of moviemaking talent without ever quite becoming an impressive movie. In both cases, I think, the problem is that the talented writer-directors are overreaching themselves and trying to do too much. In the case of Magnolia, Anderson creates a sprawling tale reminiscent of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, set in the San Fernando Valley in a single day. An rich old man, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying of cancer and wants desperately to see his estranged son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), who is a life-style entrepreneur and guru successfully selling a course in how to seduce women. Meanwhile, a less-old man, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a TV celebrity, is also dying of cancer and wants to be reconciled with his hostile daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters).
In between their two stories are those of several people tangentially connected to them. Julianne Moore plays Linda, Earl’s wife, who married him for his money and is now conscience-stricken. As he is dying, she realizes she is really in love with him; Philip Seymour Hoffman is the nurse who tries to bring about a meeting between Frank and Earl. Claudia, who is a cokehead, is playing her stereo too loud and Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) who comes to her door to warn her to turn it down falls in love with her and asks her out. She says yes. On her father’s TV quiz show, the precociously bright 11 year-old Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is rebelling against adult expectation, especially that of his father (Michael Bowen), while Donnie, an old contestant on the show (William H. Macy) who was once a minor celebrity but is now forgotten, nurses a grievance about having been robbed by his parents and tries to come up with the money to get braces so that he will be more attractive to the bartender on whom he has a homosexual crush.
Phew! Did you follow all that? Actually, it is not difficult to follow as the movie unfolds over its more than three-hour length, but the diffusion of narrative energy into so many discrete human dramas also dissipates the emotional impact of any one of them. This may be a deliberate strategy on Anderson’s part, because what he is aiming at is not an intense involvement of the audience with his characters but a Californian, medium-cool evocation of the wild and wacky times we live in. Thus he begins with three completely unconnected vignettes, apparently drawn from newspaper headlines, involving remarkable coincidences. The most remarkable is the case of a young man who attempted suicide by jumping off a building and who would have been saved by some temporary netting set up on the street below but for the fact that his mother, pointing what she thought was an unloaded shotgun at his father in a room of the same building, pulled the trigger, missed him and killed her son on his way down. The son had loaded the shotgun.
A voiceover tells us that “this was not just a matter of chance; these strange things happen all the time.” Well, maybe not that strange thing! But it is meant to set the stage for the kinds of strange things that do happen all the time, particularly in Southern California. There is, for instance, some considerable humor in Frank’s “Seduce and Destroy” ministry to the inexhaustible gullibility of the Californian market for self-improvement. Among the things that Frank promises to teach his credulous audience are “How to turn that ‘friend’ into your sperm receptacle” and “How to fake like you are nice and caring.” The rawness of his misogyny is meant to be comic, but also has its serious side, which includes his rhetorical question: “When things go wrong, do you think they’re going to be there for us?”
As it happens, it was his father who was not “there for” him, or for his mother when the latter was dying of cancer. This is what has led to his estrangement from his father. But his response has been to reinvent himself completely. His publicly-offered biography includes a much-loved father who died when he was young and a still-living mother—whose words to her son about Seduce and Destroy are said to be: “You go get ’em, honey.” When an interviewer begins to pick at his story, he tells her: “Facing the past is a way of not making progress; that’s an important element of ‘Seduce and Destroy’….The most useless thing in the world is that which is behind me. Chapter Three.” Needless to say, this is not the opinion of Paul Thomas Anderson. Past and present have to be made to face each other here, not only in Frank and Earl’s case but also those of Linda, Jimmy Gator and Claudia, and Donnie, the ex-quiz kid.
When Earl begs the nurse, Phil, to find his son so that there might be some kind of reconciliation before he dies, Frank’s tangled skein of fictions begins to unravel—yet it is replaced with a truth that looks like corny fiction. “I might sound ridiculous,” says Phil to Frank’s assistant on the phone, “like the scene in the movie where the guy’s trying to reach his long lost son. This is the scene in the movie.” Like Mr Anderson himself, Phil thinks that “they have those scenes in the movies because they really happen.” This observation helps to prepare the stage for a climactic rain of frogs which serves as a catalyzing event in the lives of all these characters. Although “we generally say, if that were in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it,” once again we are made to understand that “strange things happen all the time.” Or, as Stanley says, whose confrontation with his father has to be squeezed in too: “It happens. This is something that happens.” The point is rather over-demonstrated and made at a cost to the film’s emotional power, but there’s a lot to like about it anyway.