Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore
Tag line: "Things fall down. People look up. And when it rains, it pours"
Trivia: Almost every location contains at least one picture or painting of a magnolia flower
In my opinion, Magnolia is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s finest film. Exploring emotional distress like few movies have before, Magnolia weaves a multi-layered tale of torment and betrayal while exhibiting a style that can only be described as exhilarating.
At the heart of Magnolia is a long-running television quiz show titled “What Do Kids Know?”, which pits 3 brainy preteens against 3 equally intelligent adults. The current champions, a team of kids led by super-smart Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), are close to breaking the all-time record for winnings. Former child champion Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who currently holds the record, is grown up now, and having difficulties dealing with his status as a forgotten child prodigy. The show’s host, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who's toiled behind the microphone for 35 years, has recently discovered he’s dying of cancer. Jimmy’s adult daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), holds a grudge against her father, refusing to talk to him even after he informs her of his condition. Also on death's door is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a cantankerous old television producer whose estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise, in what might be his best performance), works as a self-help guru for men , teaching the ‘secrets’ of how to get any woman they desire into bed. Add to the mix Earl’s volatile wife (Julianne Moore), a kindhearted cop (John C. Reilly) and a well-meaning hospice nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and you have a motion picture bulging at the seams with fascinating characters.
It might all sound like your run-of-the-mill soap opera fare, but where Magnolia distinguishes itself is in the telling. First, Anderson kicks things off with a trio of bizarre, seemingly inexplicable tales (including one of the most unusual suicides ever), completely unrelated to the film's narrative, which are there to establish that strange things do, indeed, happen (something to remember when the final scene plays out). As for the individual story lines that make up the bulk of Magnolia, each one builds upon itself, one gut-wrenching twist after another, until all have reached an almost unbearable emotional plateau. Then, just as everyone seems to hit rock bottom, director Anderson changes gears by throwing in a musical sequence, during which the characters take a turn singing a line from Aimee Mann’s beautiful ballad, Wise Up. This brief interlude is extremely effective at capturing each person's heartache, as if all their shattered feelings, all their sorrows, are contained within the lyrics of that song. No matter how many times I watch Magnolia, this scene never fails to move me.
Magnolia is a marvelous film, and I always look forward to the time I spend watching it. Intelligently written and expertly acted, Magnolia is an angst-ridden tour de force.