Is Magnolia the most intense film ever made? It might well be. I can see how sometimes you wouldn't want to watch it because it’s as emotionally draining as a three-hour therapy session with a trauma victim, which it could be said to resemble. With this film and Boogie Nights in 1997 there was criticism that Paul Thomas Anderson's hyperactive style of directing was derivative. The endlessly roaming camera, the fast zooms, the sudden pans from one character to another seemed like obvious steals from De Palma and Scorsese. But who said such techniques are the prerogative of just a few directors? To me Anderson used them in his own effective way and it seemed fresh enough because his focus was the lives of ordinary people, not gangsters or wackos. One could also say that there had already been a thematically similar (and equally great) film showing the intertwining lives of a lot of troubled Los Angeles residents: Robert Altman's Short Cuts. But should we really complain that there are two masterpieces on that subject?
Magnolia has got a strange structure, peaking for the first time about an hour and a half in, following an exhausting series of scenes taking in many different characters and their predicaments, and powered on by a relentless musical theme. Everyone is anxious in this long middle passage; a young boy is anxious because he's on a quiz show and needs to use the bathroom, Tom Cruise is anxious about the probing, personal questions he's being asked by a female reporter, policeman John C Reilly is anxious about losing his gun. The pace never lets up.
Then suddenly the characters start singing along to Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’: 'it's not going to stop till you wise up' they keep repeating. A woman passed out in her car sings. A dying man and his nurse sing. Even Tom Cruise sings. This and the moment near the end when the camera zooms in on a white card saying 'But this did happen' are the two moments the director does a metaphorical 'aside to camera' but they're not exactly Brechtian; they don't interrupt the 'suspension of disbelief' any more than people stopping to sing in a Hollywood musical do. And the song comes at a pivotal moment, after Jason Robards' character has made a death-bed speech talking about the regret that fills him now. The same feeling also fills Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), it would seem. Three times during the course of the film the phrase 'You may be done with the past but the past ain't done with you' is heard, and the message seems to be that the gratification of selfish individual needs - like Robards running out on his wife when she was dying of cancer and leaving his fourteen-year-old son behind to nurse her - leaves wounds that last a lifetime.
Above all, Magnolia is about the damage done by fathers, by Robards to his son (played by Cruise, his arrogant 'search and destroy' male power guru being the most hurt, pitiable character of them all) and Philip Baker Hall to his daughter (played by Melora Walters). As if speaking for these two damaged 'children' too, at the end 'Quiz Kid Stanley' (Jeremy Blackman) tells his avaricious, bullying father he has to start being nicer to him. We cut to William H. Macy ('Quiz Kid Donnie' when he was a boy) with a bloody nose and the message is clear; Blackman will end up like this desperate, pathetic man, trying to steal money and falling flat on his face, if things don't change. Parents have to stop hounding their children just as much as they have to stop neglecting and abusing and abandoning them; too much control over young minds is as bad as too little. Throughout the film we're bathed in soothing oranges and deep reds; the characters live in well-appointed, spacious houses and apartments and there's a warm, rich palette of colours in every background. But these people are stuffed full of misery and it's not going to stop till people wise up.
When the song finishes we notice the two minutes of quiet that accompany the dinner where Reilly and Melora Walters try to get to know each other. He reveals his secrets and asks her to reveal hers but could he, a straight-as-they-come officer of the law, already shocked by her strong language, really handle her psychological problems (her father can't remember if he molested her or not) and, oh yes, the little matter of her being a cokehead. She knows he can't and so asks to never see him again.
Cruise gives a brilliant performance in this film, the camera always in his face leaving him nowhere to hide, letting us get a microscopic insight into all his false bravado; his nervous twitches when the reporter gets near the truth are masterful. For me John C Reilly, Melora Walters and Philip Seymour Hoffman are also particularly brilliant. But the whole cast - Robards, Macy, Ricky Jay, Luis Guzman- are outstanding. It strikes you when watching a film like this that American cinema's deep resources of great character actors is one thing that makes it so hard for other cinemas to compete. Only Julianne Moore is perhaps a bit false, in the scene in the drugstore at least.
It's also 'that frog film'. The frog storm at the end is a genuinely frightening experience; you feel the terror and claustrophobia of being trapped in a car while croaking animals pummel the roof of it. You have to catch your breath when the ambulance tips over and Julianne Moore goes flying through the air, and when Macy falls and gets a bloody face. To some it may seem like too much on top of everything else. Some critics said that Anderson tried to do too many things at once and it got a bit messy. Yet this is life-or-death movie-making, Magnolia was a one-of-a-kind film that he seemed to need to make to top the already brilliant Boogie Nights. The next film he made was the far less ambitious Punch Drunk Love. It was a disappointment. Then came There Will Be Blood, which many others rated highly but I found kind of flat (and at the very end silly as well) and I wonder if Magnolia didn't burn him out. For a film of such Shakespearean grandeur as this to be written, directed and co-produced by a guy who was hardly past the age of 30 is, in any case, some kind of miracle.
Lastly, the film has a fantastic soundtrack. Three superb tracks by Aimee Mann - 'One', 'Wise Up' and 'Save Me' - form the backbone the film’s music. They're complemented by Supertramp's 'Logical Song' and 'Goodbye Stranger'. And I haven't even mentioned the amazing prologue to the film and the story of the boy who fell from a roof and managed to be an accomplice to his own murder whilst trying to commit suicide.....