This review contains SPOILERS!
1999 was a great year for films. This was the year that “American Beauty” was the Best Picture Oscar. “The Matrix” came to screen, “The Sixth Sense” shocked viewers, “Being John Malkovich” confused audiences, and “Magnolia” greatly added to Paul Thomas Anderson’s resume of films.
Honestly, this film is basically indescribable and intangible. There are so many levels and so much to analyze here (the film is over the 3 hour mark) that it’s almost impossible to take in.
The film opens with a narrator talking about coincidence—three men kill a man in a town that their last names spell, a scuba diver is deposited in a tree during a forest fire by a plane, and a man who starts to commit suicide is accidentally murdered by a bullet meant for another purpose. Then the narrator states that “these strange things happen all the time.”
My childish brain does this— oh goody goody goody! From the beginning, in the first five minutes we are told that there (hopefully) will be a large coincidence that takes a long time to set up and will be impossible without all the players. This sounds good. Break out the popcorn. Here are the players:
Donnie Smith—a childhood star, who did well on a game show in his youth
Stanley—a boy genius who is now on a game show similar to Donnie
Claudia—a druggie daughter of Jimmy Gator
Jimmy Gator—an Emmy winning television personality
Frank—a self-help sleazy man who gives advice to men trying to sleep with women
Earl—a man on his deathbed
Jim—a Catholic police officer, who loves his job
The possibilities are endless here. From the opening sequence after the main title is revealed, “Magnolia” has a rather psychedelic start. It randomly shows a hasty introduction to all the characters and what a snapshot of their life is like and then hurries into the actual plot.
The film is divided into segments, three of which sound like forecasts for weather. At first, this really works for the film, and then not so much.
All of the characters have multiple breakdowns and it feels like you start to drown in all the tears that have been shed by these poor actors. Julianne Moore, who plays Linda, in particular—I don’t think she has a scene in this movie without tears streaming down her face.
The actors are all good and they all do a great job, the ones that stood out to me are Tom Cruise as Frank, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Phil, and William H. Macy as Donnie. But I can’t think of a single uplifting and happy moment in this film.
So okay, everybody’s sad. I can do sad. The viewer makes a connection with almost every character which is hard to pull off because there are so many of them.
But then, it just turns into a silly, silly, pity party. When all the characters are at their wit's end, they retreat to a private area and they all sing along to a song playing on the radio. WHAT?
I’m fine with illogical narratives (I thoroughly enjoyed “The Tree of Life” and I’m not sure you can get much more bizarre than Terrence Malick), but this one really takes the cake by turning into corny-ness so easily.
But I was willing to give the film a second chance and try not to ask how all the characters were all listening to the same radio station at the same time. So, the plot moves on. Actually, that’s misleading. There really is no plot to this movie. It’s just interweaving one person with another person.
But I had an end goal in mind. Not much of a goal to look forward to, this movie has one of the most unique endings ever. I’m not saying if it was satisfying or not, because I haven’t decided that yet, it just wasn’t what I was expecting.
The film is remarkably well crafted and executed. But there are moments when I wish things were done differently, the singing being the main offense.
There are moments when this film soars and glides. Those moments are the only reason I’m giving this movie a good score.
I have yet to appreciate Paul Thomas Anderson for a great director. I feel that he has yet to make a great film.
One thing I’ll give him, he has a fanatical support of fans, most of which tagged along after There Will Be Blood, which is a film that I still don’t understand the attraction of.
That being said, I will eagerly await and watch this director’s career. But please, no more musical numbers.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars