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Magnolia (1999)

  Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters
Music by: Aimee Mann
Links: Magnolia on the IMDb, Official site, Buy on Video, Buy on DVD, Buy the Soundtrack
Genre: Drama

This movie gets: 10.00 (2 ratings) Ranking: Ranked equal 1st of 187 movies (2 ratings minimum; see full chart)

Magnolia (1999) is also mentioned in em_fiction's review of Crash (2004), pearly's review of Donnie Darko (2001), em_fiction's review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), mino's review of Punch-Drunk Love (2002), em_fiction's review of Punch-Drunk Love (2002), mino's review of State and Main (2000), mino's review of The Last Samurai (2003), mino's review of Vanilla Sky (2001) and pearly's review of Vanilla Sky (2001).

"Partly cloudy, 82% chance of rain" - a review by em_fiction

I hired this once a while ago during my "trying to be arty and pretentious but really should be watching American Pie (1999)" days, and due to numerous distractions, I never got a chance to see the whole thing. Upon my recent second proper viewing, I realised how much I didn't get the first time round, and it just goes to show that when adults use the phrase "this film isn't for kids", it can be for more reasons than just sex and violence.

Well, I can't say that I'm an adult yet, and I'm not quite sure what reading I'd get on the maturity meter, but one thing's for sure: I loved this film. It had everything I'd ever want to constitute my idea of a "perfect" film, and more. I may have already said something similar to that for 21 Grams (2003), but I guess it can't hurt to say that there is more than one kind of 'perfect' film. And they are different: 21 Grams was a lot more concerned with realism, while Magnolia sneaks in a subtle fantasy element.

Magnolia is set in one turbulent day revolving around the lives of nine different people in California's San Fernando Valley. It really isn't one of those films you can give a neat little plot summary since there are so many of them. It'd probably be easier to just introduce each character, like in the trailer (forgive me if this ends up sounding like a transcript of the trailer): it's about a dying old man (Jason Robards), his much younger wife (Julianne Moore), his caretaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his long-lost son (Tom Cruise). It's also about a dying game show host (Philip Baker Hall),the child genius on the game show (Jeremy Blackman) and a former child genius (William H. Macy). Then there's the host's estranged daughter (Melora Walters) and a humble policeman in love with her (John C. Reilly).

Ah... so where to start? Well, this is definitely one of the most groundbreaking films in all aspects of narrative. The film opens by introducing us to the idea of "strange coincidence" and how things don't "just happen", using three bizarre little stories. These solidly form the cornerstone for the story, or stories I should say, to follow. I have to hand it to Paul Thomas Anderson; he is one freakin' genius when it comes to writing stories. For starters, Magnolia is incredibly engrossing. It's hard enough to hook an audience on one plot, let alone nine (or so), but Anderson manages to do it with ease. He creates troubled characters who are so deep and un-two-dimensional that you care about them, and you sit there fully drawn in for the whole three hours aching to learn the fate of each one of them. As the film progresses, the cutting in between each 'plot' gets faster, gathering pace and tension as the film builds towards an emotionally powerful climax.

The filmmaking and production are generally quite pleasing and unique. Anderson has a very meticulous handle on his overall design of the film. Everything from the extremely fluent movement of the camera to the distinctive rapid cutting style that, rather than confuse with its abruptness, is actually very effective in bringing across a sense of, uh... character motility. The soundtrack is another notable aspect. Anderson chose Aimee Mann to do most of the vocals for the film, and let me tell you, never has an artist captured the mood and atmosphere of a film so perfectly since Elliott Smith did the soundtrack for Good Will Hunting (1997). There is also a little sequence in the film where one of Mann's songs gets slightly more personal with each character. It was just so perfect the way it highlighted the film's whole idea of coincidence; how all these different characters, in completely different places, were able to feel in unison. A great sequence.

The acting was abso-friggin'-lutely flawless. Anderson has his own particular 'usual cast', if you like. Most came from his last picture, Boogie Nights (1997), and I don't know how he does it, but each of the actors from that, including Moore, Hoffman, Macy, Hall, Walters and Reilly, who were all undoubtedly perfect for their roles in Boogie Nights, are so equally perfect for their roles in Magnolia. It's not really a huge surprise though, since Anderson has picked out a brilliant cast to work with. Apart from his usuals, he has also recruited Jason Robards and Tom Cruise. Robards gives quite possibly what is the best performance in the entire film as the dying Earl Partridge, particularly his subtle but powerful monologue sequence. The only other film I've seen Robards in is Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and let me tell you, the man certainly has range. I don't think his range will ever be able to exceed the range that Tom Cruise has been able to demonstrate with his performance. I think mino has stressed enough how big a leap this character was for Cruise.

There's one more thing about this film that makes it the masterpiece it is, and that thing you'll have to see for yourself. If you don't already know what I'm talking about, then believe me, you will know what I'm talking about. A beautiful way to end a beautiful film.

em_fiction gives this movie 10 out of 10.
Review created on Sun 7 Nov 2004

"An astounding achievement" - a review by mino

There are several ways you can tell that you're watching an absolutely flawless movie. One, say, is that the movie absolutely absorbs you, drawing you into its world so you forget about anything else that's happening in the room. Another is that you become incredibly emotionally involved with the characters, hanging on their every word, dying to know what happens to them. Another is that no matter how many times you've seen it, it still seems as clever and wonderful as it did the first time. And another, of course, is that Tom Cruise turns in an absolutely brilliant acting performance. Any filmmaker who can manage that is clearly a super genius.

Paul Thomas Anderson, then, is clearly a super genius, because Magnolia succeeds on all these counts and more.

It's almost impossible to summarise Magnolia down into a paragraph. It's a huge, sprawling, epic, covering almost equally the lives of maybe a dozen main characters, none of whom are really the focus any more than any others. It's basically an intertwining bunch of stories, all apparently set within the same few blocks of a city street (though this isn't really made clear in the movie). The main characters all intersect somewhat, though sometimes only tangentially — it's not like a Love Actually (2003), say, where a bunch of sometimes forced coincidences force people across each other's paths. Nor is it a Pulp Fiction (1994), with complex intersections and screwy timelines. Rather, it's a just a massive (three hours plus) story which happens to be about a large number of people whose lives intersect in subtle and organic ways.

If you had to pick a central character, then you'd say that it's probably Jason Robards' Earl Partridge, a dying old man who is cared for by his much younger wife (Julianne Moore, who once again turns in an absolutely absorbing performance; I honestly doubt there's a more talented female actor working anywhere) and, more often, a young nurse who is so horribly awkward — physically and emotionally — that anyone other than Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role would have been a travesty. Robards is absolutely amazing in this, his last feature film role. He routinely manages to hog the viewer's attention from both Moore and Hoffman, which in itself says something about his magnetism. No-one did ‘lovable old cantankerous bastard’ like Robards, a role he'd been in command of for at least thirty years (compare All The President's Men (1976), say) without peer.

Other key characters are kids' game show host Jimmy Gator, an equally cantankerous old fool played nearly as captivatingly by Philip Baker Hall. His ‘half’ of the movie, if you could call it that, also draws in the stories of one of his child genius contestants, his estranged daughter, and an LAPD officer who rivals Hoffman's nurse in awkwardness (and hence could only be played by John C. Reilly), and others — like one-time TV star ‘Quiz Kid Donnie Smith’ (William H. Macy in another wonderfully quirky role).

The other key character in the mix is Frank ‘T. J.’ Mackey, an arrogant, womanising self-help guru who has made a fortune from teaching men how to ‘respect the cock’ — basically the Anthony Robbins of sex. This is possibly the one role in his career where Tom Cruise truly commands the screen: if, like me, you don't think much of Cruise's talent, you'll most like be left staring open-mouthed at his incredibly energetic and dominating performance here, as I was the first time I saw the movie. Seeing Cruise here makes you wonder why on earth someone who capable of such a captivating display has made so many terrible films. Compare Magnolia to Vanilla Sky (2001), say, and you'd find it nearly impossible to believe that it's the same guy.

So, we know the characters: what's the film about? Well, it's not really about anything, as such. Sure, there are themes, but there's no real overriding story arc which brings the whole thing together. No doubt, if you haven't seen the film, you're thinking ‘arthouse wank’, and maybe you'd be right. Unlike some films of this type, though, Magnolia is so incredibly powerful, so brilliantly written, so astoundingly acted, that nebulous ‘themes’ — death, conciliation, failure, betrayal, honesty — are more than enough to hang a three-hour movie on. The plot threads are so fascinating and well-crafted that each could almost stand alone as a great movie: the fact that each intersects and builds on the other really serve to move Magnolia up to a higher plane of filmmaking. The truly sublime soundtrack, mostly sung by Aimee Mann, which fits the movie astoundingly well, serves as the icing on an extremely well-acted cake.

Not much more can be said about Magnolia without spoiling the experience for anyone who hasn't seen it — particularly the by-now famous scene towards the end of the movie which turns everything on its head. All I can do is tell anyone who hasn't seen Magnolia to do so immediately. It's an astoundingly good film which, once and for all, shows that the massively overused, and almost always inaccurate, Hollywood cliché of ‘an all-star cast’ is, very very occasionally, totally apt.

mino gives this movie 10 out of 10.
Review created on Mon 7 Jun 2004

Movie review statistics

Number of reviews: 2
Average rating: 10.00
Lowest rating: 10 (by em_fiction, mino)
Highest rating: 10 (by em_fiction, mino)
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