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Overripe and Wilted

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

With Melora Walters, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Melinda Dillon, Jeremy Blackman, Michael Bowen

There are indulgent films, and there are over-indulgent films, and then there is Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Boogie Nights) sprawling movie devoted to one day in the life of several unhappy residents of San Fernando Valley. There are no scenes here: only narrative climaxes. No characters: only schematic walking bundles of stress. No story: only a grandiose -- albeit frequently entertaining -- mess.

The trailer for Magnolia consists of split-second takes of all the plethora of the film’s characters, each labeled with a convenient tag. In these thirty seconds, I learned more about all these people than during the film’s three hour span, and in my head all the characters can be neatly summarized in a word or two. The movie merely adds the connections between them, mostly jaw-droppingly obvious parallels between the lost folks that populate this world.

Magnolia’s characters include two elderly men (Jason Robards and Philip Baker Hall), both dying of cancer, both trying to reconcile with their estranged offspring (one has a daughter played by Melora Walters and another has a son played by Tom Cruise), while their alienated wives (Julianne Moore and Melinda Dillon, respectively) try to deal with what’s going on in their husband’s lives. There’s also another father-child pair, namely that of a quiz show child prodigy (Jeremy Blackman) and his unfeeling father (Michael Bowen), just to show what is at the root of such paternal-filial riffs already amply demonstrated by the two other families. There’s another parallel to the child prodigy, namely his counterpart of twenty years ago, now all grown up, and, of course, solitary and miserable (William H. Macy). Finally, in order to slightly alleviate the story’s fearful symmetry, there are two characters who are actively trying to establish some human contact (as opposed to the rest of them, who wallow in isolationism): a kindly but klutzy police officer (John C. Reilly) and a compassionate male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

During the film, they basically run around, with every moment of their lives being a Major Event, occasionally encountering each other, with rather obvious plot developments and tired, ostensibly taboo-breaking revelations at every step. For most of its running time the subtext of Magnolia feels like a stubborn refutation: no, says the film, Tolstoy was wrong, and all unhappy families are unhappy in exactly the same manner.

The fact that all of Magnolia feels obvious and simplistic is not the biggest problem, though. The real problem is that for all three hours of running time, I didn’t believe a second of it. Not one iota of it makes any emotional or psychological sense.

The actors try hard, of course. They try so hard that the sweat -- real or imaginary -- is constantly trickling down their collective furrowed brows. But, still, every one of them (with one possible exception) fails to make the stick figure from the screenplay into a real, fleshed-out character. Jason Robards is given an interminable death-bed soliloquy; Philip Baker Hall is required to suffer a breakdown on the air (he’s a TV quiz show host); Michael Bowen furiously throws the furniture around when his son meekly requests a minor measure of respect; etc.

By the time William H. Macy is forced to quote the Bible (a verse about the sins of the fathers, as if this wasn’t an obvious theme already) while vomiting in a seedy bar’s bathroom, I more or less gave up on Magnolia. And don’t even get me started on poor Julianne Moore, who has a part which simply makes no sense whatsoever, even though Anderson attempts to make it somewhat plausible by making her character under the influence of prescription drugs (a currently popular lazy plot device; see also chapter 100 of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal).

Two actors come quite close to succeeding. The amazingly versatile Philip Seymour Hoffman, the one who usually plays weirdos, in a rather daring bit of stunt casting, plays a perfectly normal man: kind, compassionate, and even handsome. He is fine for most of Magnolia -- until Anderson forces him to attempt to convince someone by saying: “I know, this feels like a scene from a movie -- but this is not a movie, this is life!” Even he can’t deliver this kind of archly postmodern line successfully.

The second almost-but-not-quite actor is Tom Cruise. He’s very well cast, that’s for sure. I have always maintained that Cruise is a fine actor, and can act anything but charm: if he attempts this, his natural charisma clashes weirdly with the artifice. P.T. Anderson, in a masterstroke of casting, gives Cruise the part which almost entirely consists of coasting on artifice, on aggressive put-on charm. Cruise is Frank Mackey, a profanity-spouting sex guru, teaching men how to attract and tame women by faking being nice. Cruise goes for broke, gyrating his pelvis right into the face of a female journalist who comes to interview him, staring at the world with unbridled contempt, and generally behaving like a slimeball. (To give credit where credit is due, this is not the first time he’s cast as well; he made a great car salesman in Rain Man, playing essentially the same fake charm, although in a much subdued manner.)

In any case, Cruise is very good until the very end, where he’s given a breathtaking scene, a progression from indifference to deeply rooted hate, to debilitating love, to, finally, acceptance. Cruise went into this scene, all his dramatic muscles coiled and ready, and I sat up in my seat, thinking, What if he really pulls this off? I guess I’ll never know the answer, because straight in the middle, Anderson cuts to another scene. When he comes back to Cruise, the sense of the scene and the timing is lost, and all the heavy dramatics feel merely comical.

The only character who really matters, ultimately, is Melora Walters’ cocaine-addicted abused young woman, who still manages to keep hope in her heart. She’s the only one who feels real, and it’s solely to her credit that the film’s ending (the last shot is the only understated moment of the whole movie) works.

So here it is: a three hour film with pretty much no one to care about, and with not a single believable character or story. Yet it’s rarely boring, and frequently even exciting. The reason is that, while P.T. Anderson the producer made a mistake by hiring P.T. Anderson the screenwriter, he also made a wise move by choosing P.T. Anderson the director, whose brilliant technique frequently manages to compensate the screenplay’s woefully over-ambitious drive.

While narrative bombast doesn’t work, the visual bombast does, making Magnolia such an eye-full and a visual treat that I rarely had a time to be bored. Just witness the opening sequence, a trio of unrelated vignettes about the power of chance, which are all hilarious; or the amazing montage of twirling cameras, which introduces all the characters during and after the opening titles; or the insanely elaborate tracking shots, showing the life backstage at the taping of TV quiz show. Aurally, Magnolia is as much of a treat: built around several gorgeous Aimee Mann songs, it’s as lovely to the ear as it is exciting to the eye -- and, regrettably, inert to the heart and mind.

Until the climax, that is. The last reel is one for the history books. It is devil-may-care filmmaking, the most wild, the craziest, most creative sequence I’ve seen this whole year (yes, more so than any one in Being John Malkovich). It is quite indescribable, totally unbelievable, and a relentlessly fun cinematic ride. When it was unfolding, my jaw was dropping, and it really didn’t matter that this sequence really didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie, nor that underneath, it was merely another hoary quotation from the Bible.

In the end, this is what I remember from Magnolia: ten minutes of wild abandon. I loved this sequence so much that the previous three hours of frustration seemed to be a decent investment. Other than the ending, there’s really nothing innovative about the film: it’s not even the first well-intentioned artistically-lacking film this year that deals with suburban angst and is named after a flower.