Magnolia (review)

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Matters of Chance

(Best of 1999)

“If that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.” So says a character in Magnolia after an astounding occurrence, and that warped self-reference just about sums up how daring this film is. Writer/director P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights) pushes the boundaries of film convention here with a three-hour exploration of chance and coincidence, the banalities of love and death, and the “strange things [that] happen all the time.”

On one ordinary day in Southern California, a series of people with tenuous connections to one another deal with the pain and boring reality of life, but Anderson handles his characters so tenderly and with such intimate detail that they are never less than enthralling. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards: Enemy of the State) is dying in his bed at home — and complaining about how boring dying is — while his nurse, Phil Parmer (Philip Seymour Hoffman: Patch Adams, Boogie Nights), desperately tries to find a way to fulfill his patient’s simple dying wish. Earl’s wife, Linda (Julianne Moore: The End of the Affair, An Ideal Husband), grief-stricken for more than the obvious reasons, is dealing with a brand of guilt concerning her husband, a guilt that haunts her and will push her to desperate measures.
“Wiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy: A Slight Case of Murder, Happy, Texas), a champion on the TV quiz show What Do Kids Know? as a youngster, is haunted by the fact that he reached his prime early and that it’s been all downhill since then. The current young champ of What Do Kids Know?, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), hounded and browbeaten by his down-on-his-luck dad (Michael Bowen: Jackie Brown), seems to be on course to grow into another Donnie. The longtime host of What Do Kids Know?, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall: The Insider, Cradle Will Rock), is hiding from his wife (Melinda Dillon) the secret of why he is estranged from their daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters: Boogie Nights). And Claudia has secrets of her own to keep from lonely cop Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly: The Thin Red Line, Boogie Nights), with whom she is just beginning a tentative relationship.

And then there is Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise: Eyes Wide Shut, Jerry Maguire), possibly the most screwed-up and least self-aware of any of Magnolia‘s inhabitants. Charismatic and pompous, Mackey’s “Seduce & Destroy” program teaches sex-starved men the “tricks” they need to know to get any and as many women as they want. With the air of a televangelist, Mackey tells a seminar full of losers as emotionally desperate as he is to “respect the cock.”

I use variations on the words haunt and desperation deliberately. This is a film about the haunting of the past and the mundane desperation of the present. From parents who cannot connect with their adult children — can’t heal wounds inflicted long ago — to Donnie Smith, who is so unable to leave his past behind that time seems to pass more slowly for him (he’s an early 80s throwback, with his skinny ties, moussed hair, and pushed-up jacket sleeves), nearly every character in Magnolia is searching for something — love, sex, death, or respect — to make up for a painful past, and most of them are not finding what they need. The cop looking for a “calm and loving relationship” is unlikely to find that kind of serenity with drug-addicted Claudia. The boy genius Stanley, who tells his father in the end that he has to be nicer, will almost certainly be disappointed. As in American Beauty — the closest parallel Magnolia has among recent films — there’s a lot of rage and pain exploding onscreen, though here, as in real life, there isn’t a lot of resolution to it.

As the film opens, we get a weather report — partly cloudy, 80% chance of rain — that, like much of Magnolia, at first appears a throwaway touch of the ordinary but will later be ironic in retrospect. The weather reports that intersperse the film, the randomness of events, and the way Anderson leaps around between characters and stories replicates another mundanity of everyday life that movies typically ignore: television. Watching Magnolia is like channel surfing, jumping in and out of stories yet still managing to keep track of all that’s going on. TVs are on in the background throughout much of the film, just as they are throughout much of our own lives. Is this constant intruder in our homes partly responsible for our fractured relationships with the people we live with and love? That many of the characters here have some connection to the television industry — from the quiz show to Mackey’s “Seduce & Destroy” infomercial — and that their work is either a cause or a symptom of their problems indicates that perhaps Anderson thinks we might all be a little healthier without the tube.

With some of the most startling imagery onscreen recently, profound and moving performances, and groundbreaking innovations in how filmed stories are told, Magnolia is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

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