1001 Movie Club: Magnolia
It’s that time of the month again. Time for the films of the 1001 Movies You Must See Club. I was super stoked when Magnolia was picked, as it’s one of my all-time favorite films, but one of my all-time favorite directors. This is one of the few films that assures me that I have some sort of idea of what makes a good film, as I saw it in 1999 when it was released, and loved it even back then, when I was 14 and had no knowledge of cinema beyond was playing in Idaho Falls, Idaho. See other reviews from the other club members here.
Magnolia bares more than a little resemblence to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. It’s fair to say the critical success of the film owes quite a bit to Mr. Altman’s classic. But in its own right, Magnolia is magnificient. It follows a myriad of stories. There are so many of them, it’s difficult to explain.
There’s a young boy genius playing on a game show that pits kids against adults. The host of the show, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), just found out he has cancer, and will be dying soon. This greatly affects his wife. And somewhat affects his estranged daughter (Melora Walters), who won’t speak to him. She does drugs and plays music too loud, which leads her to meet a kind, odd cop (John C. Reilly) who wants nothing more than to spend his life with a nice girl. The game show is produced by a production company started by an Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is dying very rapidly. His nurse is named Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and has grown close to him. Earl married a golddigger named Linda (Julianne Moore), who’s fraught with guilt now that her husband is dying and she’s actually fallen quite deeply in love with her. Earl’s son Frank (Tom Cruise) is a misogynist who peddles self help seminars for men who want to turn their female friends into sexual conquests. There’s also a former child star, William H. Macy (who also was a contestant on the same children’s show), who’s in love with a male bartender, and plans on robbing his place of business to pay for his oral surgery.
It’s even more complicated than it sounds. What’s remarkable, is that none of these stories would be remotely interesting on their own. Anderson takes all of these seemingly mundane strands and orchestrates them into a veritable symphony, the likes of which rarely show up in theatres. The film runs just over three hours, and is a good example of what can happen when a director has the final say when it comes to editing. Should the film have been shorter? Yes. William H. Macy’s storyline should have been cut out completely. Some probably should have merited more time and attention. For instance, Tom Cruise’s character goes through an interview in the middle of the film that is surely the movie’s finest moment, and much of it was cut. Frank is an example of the skill of Anderson in creating and writing characters. Other fine performances buoy the film as well, especially those by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore ( the New York Times claimed Moore and Hoffman saved the film from it’s own worst, reductive ideas by their intimate performances and deeply felt distress signals).
In it’s own rambling and excessive way, the film builds and builds into a tense frenzy when all the stories come to a dramatic head that, at first glance seems completely random, but can actually be explained. At a very early seen, an audience member at the game show is seen holding up a sign Exodus 8:2. References to the numbers eight and two are found throughout the film. And yes, the single thread that keeps all these stories attached is a little week. So was the ending to Short Cuts.
For all it’s faults, Magnolia is a fine piece of American cinema. When asked if American cinema was dead, Ingmar Bergman mentioned Magnolia as proof that cinema was alive and well in the US. Even those who are critical of the film, even they must admit that this is better than most of the other stuff out there.