A definite ode to the tried and tested mould of the late Robert Altman, Magnolia is sprawling, epic and deep. Whilst its opening minutes bring home to the viewer the often-surprising yet innocuous nature of chance, it often takes a back step. The real lynchpin here, the predominant focus, is that of two elderly men who are in the later stages of cancer. Both have secrets and both have lived the latter days of their lives buried with regret. Also, through chance, they both work on a quiz show named What Do Kids Know? Earl Partridge (the late Jason Robards in his last role) is the bedridden producer whilst Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the show’s host. It’s through these troubled men that the story unfolds. Both are estranged from their children (Tom Cruise and Melora Walters respectively), which has lead them down paths of distaste (Walters as Claudia is a promiscuous cocaine addict whilst Cruise laps it up as the truly horrid Frank T.J. Mackey, a sex guru who makes a living on his ‘Seduce and Destroy’ seminars).
It’s through their kids that we meet a plethora of secondary characters that are necessary to the narrative; Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is finally falling in love with him despite initially having married him for his money, Jim Curring (John C. Reilly) is a cop who is kind yet is seldom respected, Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macey), a previous child star of What Do Kids Know who is consistently down on his luck as an adult, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) the new star of What Do Kids Know whose father is neglectful and unsupportive and Phil Palmer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is Earl’s nurse during the last moments of his life. Strangers for the most part, their lives collide through circumstance and chance as each character, over the lengthy three hour run time, comes to terms with their own inner demons. As is stated twice during the film (once by Jimmy Gator before he begins what will be his last show and by Donnie after professing his love to the local bartender); ‘The book says: we may be through with the past, but the past aint through with us’.
Considering much of Magnolia was written by Paul Thomas Anderson over three weeks (whilst refusing to venture outside after seeing a snake), what he has succeeded in doing here is a detailed character study of multiple well-rounded personalities, all different, yet all familiar, a feat that can often lead to filmic catastrophe (see 2004’s Crash, a film as loathed as it is lauded). Arguably, the only truly decent characters are Phil, Stanley and Jim (even Donnie, in a fit of stupidity, robs his place of work the night he’s fired), yet all are surrounded by the filth of modern life. Jim falls for Claudia (Gator’s daughter) who is a mess, Stanley’s father is an overbearing and forceful monster, and Phil is shunned and berated by Linda when he attempts to contact Frank on the behest of Earl. Wherever you look in Magnolia, there is goodness waiting to come forth, yet it’s buried under the past of all involved and frequently and inadvertently drags others into it (see Phil and Jim respectively). Donnie’s motif ‘I have a lot of love to give, I just don’t know where to put it’ should, in fact, be the film’s tagline.
That is not to say the film is bleak. Call it a film about redemption; it clearly makes the point that the most repugnant of people are worthy of it at the end. Whilst Earl is a man who is clearly at odds with his conscience due to his repetitive infidelity that leads to his estranged relationship with Frank, it’s Gator who is the hardest to like. Whilst only implied, his estrangement with his daughter could be the result of incest, an incident that Gator claims no recollection of. Despite his continued attempts at reconciliation, Claudia refuses his advances. Whilst the similarities in these men are apparent, their paths, inevitably, veer in different directions: Earl dies in the company of Frank, who has, despite his anger, forgiven his father, yet Gator is left alone pondering his failings as his wife drives to Claudia’s in knowledge of the true reasons for their estrangement.
There are inherit moments of beauty throughout yet the stand-outs feature toward the latter third of the film. As the movie moves into its third act, the cast, all having confronted their demons and reeling from the effects, begin a rendition of Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’, a scene that in lesser hands may be seen as pretentious and self indulgent, yet somehow seems necessary in the wider context of the film. Prior to this, Robards, in a speech in excess of ten minutes, confides in Phil the nature of his regret whilst intercut with moments from the other players. Whilst his own demons are deeply personal to him, the sheer power of the scene implies the greater repercussions on those around him, both directly and indirectly.
Yet the most talked of scene is undoubtedly the finale, in which, for reasons that aren’t explained, frogs rain from the sky. Much like the audience, our characters are baffled by its occurrence yet, in context, it serves as a reputable plot thread that rounds up the narrative. In experiencing an event as outlandish as this (brushed aside by Stanley as he states; ‘this happens’), each character is able to come to terms with the bigger picture: their demons, no matter how large or small, are inconsequential when compared to the wider world. Whilst not everyone makes it through unscathed (Gator, Linda and to a lesser extent Stanley), each has at least tried to make things better.
The final shot, a slow three-minute pan on Claudia’s face as Jim consoles her, is worth the journey. Her smile, a second long flicker before the scene cuts to black, allows the audience their reward. Even those, like Claudia, who are down and out in the worst possible ways, can still make it through. For that, Magnolia is worth your time, and for that, in the opinion of this reviewer, it is the finest movie ever made.
Best scene: Robards’ bed-ridden speech about regret. Heartbreaking stuff.
Best performance: As much of a cop-out as it is, the entire ensemble work equally hard and deliver career best performances.
Best line: Cruise’s intro as the truly repugnant Frank T.J. Mackey: ‘Respect the cock! And TAME the cunt! Tame it!’