Great Films: Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)

Let’s get a few things out of the way first:

Is the film too long? Probably.
Does it owe a lot to Short Cuts? Yes.
What’s all that frog business about? I’m not entirely sure.
Is it a great film? Well.. i’d say yes.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature is the kind of film that from the outset thinks it is a masterpiece. This can obviously go one of two ways: either it delivers on this promise, or it falls short. For me, it is in the former camp, a film that is a ‘stayer’, though one whose full meaning I am still not entirely sure of.

The recent trend for the use of interweaving storylines seems to have become a bit old hat now; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s overlong snore-fest Babel and the recently released Robert Redford-directed Lions For Lambs seem to be the latest in an increasingly long line of such films which like to suggest how individuals’ actions have an affect on others. In many ways, the trend can be traced back all the way back to Pulp Fiction, though Paul Haggis’ Crash and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic are perhaps more relevant comparisons. The Tarantino film aside, all of these films are clearly aimed at the heart, attempts to make the audience question their own actions and prejudices.

This is all very well, but there is a tendency for these films to be too preachy, and at times preposterous. Inarritu’s Amores Perros got the balance right, as did to a lesser extent his 21 Grams, and the Haggis and Soderbergh films. However, when it goes wrong, like in the case of Babel, the audience can feel at best bored and at worst utterly patronised. It would appear that, given the wide variance of critical opinion, Magnolia is a film that you either are prepared to go the distance with, or shut yourself off from at an early stage.

The granddaddy of all of these films is Robert Altman’s seminal 1993 film Short Cuts. In that film, snippets from the Raymond Carver short stories were cut together to form a three-hour picaresque view of Los Angeles, that just flies by effortlessly. To me, Magnolia feels more in this mould than that of the more recent films mentioned above. These people are not really living especially different lives; sure, their material and social circumstances are different, but they all have commonalities with each other, but not in a contrived sense, more in a sense that people living in a common geography will have similar life experiences and prejudices. The film’s consistent approach to mise en scene appears to suggest that continuity of tone is the director’s intention.

There are clear overarching themes facing the film’s characters; there is, typical of this type of film, a sense of isolation, an alienation from family and friends surrounding them. But what makes Magnolia special is the central theme of forgiveness; not solely in a Judaeo-Christian sense, which is reflected by the god-fearing cop, but still a profoundly moral one. All of the main characters live their lives in the shadow of something, something they choose not to face up to. Many of them will, during the course of the film, have to face up to these, with differing consequences. Others, such as the aforementioned cop, played neatly by John C. Reilly, and the caregiver, a slightly underused Phillip Seymour Hoffman, seem to live lives of generosity and altruism, but still have to make decisions about their lives. We are also reminded, via a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not style prologue and epilogue, about the role that chance plays in such matters; Aubrey McFate, as Humbert Humbert refers to lady luck in Lolita, seems to have a hand in proceedings, offering an element of magical realism to the film.

The various plot strands play out nicely, if dragged out a little bit too much at times. There are numerous standout performances: Tom Cruise, for me, is a perhaps a little too over the top as the uber-alpha male self-help author, Philip Baker Hall is his usually great self as gameshow host Jimmy Gator, William H. Macy predictably reliable as down-on-his-luck ex-“quiz-kid” Donnie Smith, and Julianne Moore putting in a remarkable perfomance as the wife of a terminally ill older husband. But the part of the film I liked the most was the relationship between Officer Jim Curring, a deadpan John C. Reilly, and cocaine-addicted Claudia Gator, an affectingly vulnerable Melora Walters. They go on a date, and make a pact: to say the things they feel to each other, not to hide away things that might be embarrassing or shameful or difficult to confide to another. And the other characters in Magnolia, to a greater or lesser extent, learn to be able to do this, and face up to their situations and problems.

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