I truly believe that 1999 was one of the best years in cinema history. In that one year, we saw a plethora of talents, new and veteran, making films that made 1999 one of the most extraordinary periods for cinema – we had David Fincher creating the iconic Fight Club, M. Night Shyamalan breaking through with The Sixth Sense, David O. Russell giving war satire a unique spin in Three Kings, Terrence Malick returning to cinema for the first time in two decades with The Thin Red Line, Spike Jonze creating a surreal masterpiece with Being John Malkovich, Wes Anderson making one of his first masterpieces, Rushmore, Jim Jarmusch’s unique look at the samurai genre with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and of course the maestro Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, Eyes Wide Shut. The list goes on an on. Yet, there is one film from that year that means more to me than any of these others – and if you know anything about my cinematic tastes and preferences, you’ll know that the film I am referring to is Magnolia, but my cinematic hero, Paul Thomas Anderson.
Now some background – this was the first Paul Thomas Anderson film I saw. I was quite a youngster when I saw it, no older than 14 or 15 – and considering by that point I considered myself quite a cinephile, I had an arrogance that many people that age who love a certain kind of art tend to have. Yet, the moment I inserted the DVD I bought (based on a vague recommendation I received), and watched the opening moments of this film, I was absolutely captivated. I have spoken about how Paul Thomas Anderson is responsible for my proverbial cinematic “awakening” – and I can assure you that it was this precise moment that I truly fell in love with cinema. That rainy Saturday afternoon changed by mindset forever, and made me appreciate cinema in a way I have never enjoyed it before. Magnolia was a spiritual experience for me, and a film I have revisited a few times since then. Yet, each time I rewatch it, I find myself equally enthralled by the delicacy of Anderson’s modern epic. The most recent rewatching, conducted for the purposes of this review, was one of the more moving, because in the time between my previous viewing and this one (about two or three years), I experienced a lot more than I did before and I could truly appreciate this film more. It may appear tacky to discuss something personal here, but I felt it important to contextualize how important this film is to me, because the way we respond to a film is vital to understanding how it connects with the audience.
Having said that, let’s look at this film. Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker who never fails to make his own cinematic inspirations known – and perhaps the most important of his inspirations was Robert Altman, who was a mentor-figure to Anderson, so it seems (Anderson even assisted in directing A Prairie Home Companion) – and you can find significant parallels between the two filmmakers (such as Inherent Vice being a darkly comical and wonderfully incoherent 1970s film noir, much like Altman’s great The Long Goodbye). It may be a bit of a stretch, but I find that Magnolia is somewhat comparable to Altman’s Short Cuts, which also traces the lives of separate characters within Los Angeles, showing how their connections and degrees of separation add up to a mosaic of modern life. Much like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” connects various threads of stories together to create an image of the modern world, Magnolia takes an equally epic scope in showing how the simplicity of life actually is a lot more complex than we imagine. Much like Short Cuts, Magnolia has a wide-ranging cast of newcomers and veterans, all taking part in stories that have common themes.
We need to discuss how Magnolia defies the odds to become something truly extraordinary – because honestly, it is a film that runs over three hours, and has a somewhat confusing and meandering plot with some surreal moments that the audience is unable to make any sense of. There was so much working against Magnolia, I am surprised it actually succeeded – yet I am not entirely surprised, because if there is any doubt that this would be a great film just based on the audacity of the premise, the fact that it is the brainchild of Paul Thomas Anderson should inspire the highest hopes in the audience – if his streak of near-perfect films doesn’t already state that the man can do absolutely no wrong, then I am not sure what will. Yet, in 1999 he was still relatively new to the cinematic scene (even if Boogie Nights was a roaring success and something that brought him a massive amount of acclaim), so he didn’t have that complete vote of confidence as a great auteur that he has now, which makes the triumph of Magnolia so spectacular.
Magnolia is a film about connections, and how interactions with other people create a mosaic of life. Each of these characters have connections in some way to the other characters, and it is difficult to separate them from each other because Anderson weaves the narratives together in such a way that they seem to become one single story. Yet, I have managed to roughly divide this film into six separate narratives, which I have done in order to coherently explain this film’s plot as well as comment on its successes as a film. Considering I often separate these two kinds of discussions, I have risen to the occasion of being inspired by the interlocking nature of Magnolia and weaving the various ideas together. It is dangerous to compartmentalize these narratives, because the major success of this film lies in the interlocking connections – but when considering how separate these stories actually tend to be, the weaving together of the individuals through circumstance is all the more evident.
The first storyline that should be mentioned is both the weakest and the most important of all of them, for it is this narrative out which all the other storylines are connected. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a child prodigy on a popular long-running game show. His father is a ruthless helicopter parent, living his own dreams and ambitions through his son, objectifiying his child in order to advance his own desires. I consider this the weakest of the six narratives because it is the one aspect of this film I dislike – Blackman is not convincing, and his arc is just not all that well-developed. He is a somewhat unlikable character, and even a riveting monologue doesn’t save the character. Yet, this isn’t important, because he is an unimportant character in the grander scheme of this film, with his narrative only serving to contextualize the rest of the film.
Blackman’s arc is logically followed by the narrative of Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a man who was in Stanley’s position, a child prodigy exploited by his manipulative parents. Now in middle-age, he is an unsuccessful salesman who is deeply closeted and wants to profess his love the bartender at the local bar, but cannot convince anyone that he is a pathetic wreck. Macy is a tremendous actor, but Magnolia was once instance where I was truly shocked at how good he could be. In Boogie Nights, he had a small but memorable role, but whereas Boogie Nights thrived on its smaller performances, Magnolia gives almost every character something to do, and Macy thrives – his character is one that feels perfectly balanced – he is neither underused or overexposed. He is a tragic figure, and someone who struggles with one of this film’s main themes that many of the characters suffer from – the corruption of fame. He was in the same position as Stanley, and Stanley would be in the same position as him if he didn’t have the revelation. Fame is a central theme in both Magnolia and Boogie Nights, where it is neither praised nor reviled – it is just presented as a narcotic of sorts – used intelligently by some, but overindulged in by the vast majority that can acquire it.
The concept of fame is explored best in the third narrative, and the one I found most fascinating. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) has hosted the game show for years and is a well-loved veteran, a welcome presence in the lives of many Americans. However, the charismatic and kindly television host takes a very different persona when he is out of the spotlight – instead of being the dignified, wholesome figure America knows and loves, he is a suicidal, alcoholic wreck who may or may not have molested his own daughter. Not only does Magnolia create a snapshot of a moment in the lives of various characters, it creates a fascinating timeline, as the characters of Stanley, Donnie and Jimmy all display different generations, as well as displaying different kinds of fame – new fame, washed-up fame and respect. The fact that these characters have something lurking under the surface, some inner turmoil, simply contributes to the incredible complexities of this film.
Magnolia is not a film only about the famous side of Los Angeles – it also takes a fascinating approach to showing the working-class and lower-class side of the city. This is evident in the fourth narrative, shared between Jimmy Gator’s daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters) and a LAPD officer, Jim (John C. Reilly), who enter the lives of each other purely by chance. It is the most tragic yet optimistic narrative in the entire film. Claudia is a drug addict with severe issues, whereas Jim is an insecure Christian man trying to live a wholesome life. Their attempts at genuine romance are thwarted by the influence of the past – in various moments throughout this film, the adage “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us” is repeated – and while I always view the romance between Jim and Claudia to be somewhat hopeful, it isn’t without its difficulties, but I have to say that the manner in which Anderson ended this film proved that romance will ultimately win over everything negative, especially the weight of the past.
Romance is one of the more subtle themes in Magnolia, more specifically the lack of romance in modern life. This ties up with the idea of fame and wealth as mentioned previously, and no figure in this film represents these themes quite as well as Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who has developed a successful system that helps men become misogynistic fools who believe that they can only find love if they objectify women for their own benefit. Mackey is a complex character, and the idea of fame plays a major part – just like how Jimmy Gator puts on a persona that hides his own past, Mackey does the same – but to such an extent that his name isn’t even his own, and he outright tells large falsehoods in the pursuit of that persona being believable. Cruise is so good in Magnolia – it is by far his best performance, because it allows him to abandon the action veneer and actually play a character that has proper development. It isn’t fair to criticize Cruise for his role in action films – he is good at it. I just know that Cruise has legitimate talent in other modes of acting, so it is important to realize that Cruise is capable of giving a powerful and emotionally resonant performance, which he does so beautifully in Magnolia.
Cruise’s arc crosses directly into the sixth and final narrative, and one that I feel naturally should be considered last, especially when we placed Stanley’s first, as it forms a juxtaposition between old and young, life and death. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is a famous television producer, having helped develop the game show that this film is centered around. He is very near death, having what seem like mere days to live. He is assisted by his loyal nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who finds an emotional connection with the dying man, and wishes to assist in his wish of reconnecting with his son, who just happens to be Frank. Through rigorous efforts, the reunion happens, and results in a moment that induces the most fragile tears of pure emotion. Added to this, Earl’s much younger wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) finds herself conflicted – she, by her own admission, only married Earl for his money – but now that he is dying, she legitimately loves him and wants him instead of the large amount of money she has been promised in his will. This speaks once again to the theme of love, a tricky concept that very few people are able to fully understand. This film reaches a magnificently sad crescendo in the last act, when Frank finally confronts his father – I doubt anyone is able to make it through that scene without feeling something. All the performances in Magnolia are so impressive – each character is perfectly developed, and each actor manages to do their very best with what they are given. It is a true ensemble effort, each person playing their own role, not to stick out as an individual, but rather to contribute to the magnificent ensemble.
I won’t pretend like I can make sense of what Magnolia means – as far as I am concerned, it has a much deeper meaning, but one that will elude us until the end of time. The spontaneous musical number in the middle of this film, as well as the very famous scene towards the end that can only be described as Biblical, there is something lurking beneath Magnolia that isn’t clear – but what is clear is the theme of chance. We are all connected in some way – he interact with people daily, often without knowing that we may indeed be connected to them in some strange and arbitrary way – chance and coincidences do happen to all of us, but are they truly coincidences that “just happen”, or are they the work of some celestial machinery. Magnolia is not a particularly spiritual film, but there are some very religious and philosophical overtones to this film that deserve to be considered, but because of the vague nature of this film, it would be foolish to try and come up with a definitive theory as to what it could be. It is always up to the viewer, which is often the best way of making a meaningful film.
Magnolia is a wonderful film. It is a personal favourite – and I owe so much to it. I allowed me to view cinema very differently to how I viewed it before. It made me rethink what I thought to be true about what a film can make you feel, and it truly awakened me to the true nature of what cinema is. Not only that, it is a brilliant piece of cinema – Paul Thomas Anderson managed to make a very long time, with a sprawling cast and a concept as large as any great historical epic, and he condenses life into a small snapshot of various individuals, both remarkable or ordinary, and makes us think about our own place in this world, and our own pursuits of happiness – whether through wealth, fame or simple romance, and makes us reconsider our connections with others. If this is not a sign of a true masterpiece, I don’t know what is. I have yet to be disappointed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and I will rewatch his films until the day I die, because he is truly a cinematic visionary and I am so thrilled that I exist in the same moment as he does, because he is doing some truly extraordinary things in cinema, and I completely believe he is going to go on to become one of the most influential figures of his generation. Magnolia is enough proof of this, as are all of his films. He is a truly a master and deserves every bit of praise that he receives. If you can, watch Magnolia – it will change your entire mindset. Then watch it a few more times, because it really is that extraordinary.