It has become a popular trend in films to tell several seemingly unrelated
stories at once, zipping back and forth between them like a TV viewer clicking
his remote. This style can be seen in films like Playing
By Heart, Go, and just about anything
by Quentin Tarantino. But in those films, the stories eventually tie together.
In Magnolia, their connection is tangential at best.
First, there's elderly TV producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who
is dying of cancer and lapses in and out of consciousness while his selfless
nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his guilt-ridden, unfaithful wife (Julianne
Moore) try their best to make him comfortable. During one of his lucid moments,
Jimmy asks to see his estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise). Frank
is the leader of Seduce & Destroy, a sexist self-help program designed
to teach men to sexually and psychologically control women. Frank leads
his rallies like Hitler in those old newsreels, but when he finally does
reunite with his dying father, the sparks really fly.
In story number two, a lonely police officer named Jim Kurring (John
C. Reilly) falls in love with a woman who plays her stereo too loudly and
snorts huge amounts of cocaine. Claudia (Melora Walters), who appreciates
the attention from Jim but knows her habit would never allow them to form
a relationship, is the daughter (also estranged) of TV personality Jimmy
Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Jimmy emcees the quiz show What Do Kids Know?,
in which children are matched up against adults in a trivia challenge. Jimmy
has just found that he too is dying of cancer, but must continue to host
a show in which a smart, browbeaten kid (Jeremy Blackman) is pressured to
lead his team to victory despite the fact that he urgently has to use the
Story number three is about former quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H.
Macy), who became famous as a youngster on What Do Kids Know? but
has hit hard times. His attempt to be taken seriously by a male bartender
whom he is attracted to is dashed by the bitter derision of a suave socialite
named, of all things, Thurston Howell (played not by Jim Backus but Laugh-In
vet Henry Gibson). Unable to stand the rejection, Donnie goes off the deep
end and embarks on a desperate plan.
These stories all roll toward their own separate crescendos apparently
unaware of each other, with lots of pathos and melodrama. Then an event
happens that, while it doesn't really tie them together, definitely affects
them all. It also takes the film fully into the realm of surrealism. I won't
reveal what it is, but let's just say you'd better have a very sturdy umbrella.
I get the impression that Anderson is attempting to emulate Oliver Stone
here. His film is heavy on the art, heavy on the symbolism, and light on
credibility. It begins and ends with historic tales of bizarre events that
seem too coincidental to be true, but with the claim that it all actually
happened. His actors put forth some very powerful performances, especially
Cruise, Reilly, Macy, Hoffman, and Moore. Any one of these stories could
be its own movie; the characters I've mentioned represent only a fraction
of the multitude of speaking parts in the film.
Music is as much a presence as any person in Magnolia; there are
times when it is nearly impossible to hear the dialogue because of the pounding
chords and vocals washing over the proceedings. This trend starts at the
film's opening, with a 20-minute version of Three Dog Night's "One,"
by Aimee Mann, and reaches its climax when all the characters are at one
point seen singing the same song. The music involving Cruise's emotional
reunion with his father is particularly affecting. Or annoying, depending
on how you look at it.
Is it art raised to its highest form, or simply the pretentious masturbation of a wealthy director who has found the backing to put it on the screen? That's up to the viewer to decide, but in any case, Magnolia is certainly fascinating. ****
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