Exodus 8:2 – And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs
Paul Thomas Anderson, director of such films as Hard Eight, and Boogie Nights, examines the accidental intersections of life in Magnolia. The film is scattered with several unusual touches which grant a slightly absurd edge to this otherwise serious film. However, these intriguing touches, inspiring both awe and incredulity, combine with a superb cast and a well-written script to create a truly epic ensemble drama.
Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the long-time host of a popular game show, pitting child prodigys against adults. His show has made stars of child geniuses, such as ex-boy genius Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), and modern-day boy wonder, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Jimmy Gaynor’s wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon), is trying to hold together her fragmenting family, in particular her distant, coke-addicted daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia, in turn, is being wooed by earnest police officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who doesn’t know the truth of her addiction.
The second family within Magnolia are the Partridges. Rich TV producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying of cancer, and his young wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is wracked with guilt. Earl appeals to his caretaker, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to locate his estranged son. That son happens to be none other than Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), the driving force behind a series of misogynistic seminars entitled “Seduce and Destroy”.
The events of Magnolia take place over the course of one fateful day (and night) in which the fates of the characters entertwine as they all try to make and break connections. Hefty doses of coincidence and divine intervention add variety to the film, and serve as a catalyst for all the participants within.
Magnolia will best be remembered for its sharp doses of unreality into an otherwise grounded drama. Its unusual scenes, such as a group sing-along, or a heavily foreshadowed weather disturbance, are certainly attention grabbers, but even without them, Magnolia would still be a strong drama.
Magnolia has a great script. From its fascinating (although totally unrelated) opening prologue, to some magnificent character showcases, Anderson’s script is witty, vibrant and entertaining.
The strong ensemble in Magnolia is definitely a plus. There’s not a soft apple in the bunch. Tom Cruise is electric in the film’s showiest role, and yet the actors in more subtle situations are never overshadowed. If I had to highlight one other actor in the group, I’d single out Philip Seymour Hoffman, who makes one of the most “normal” people in the film, and makes him fascinating to watch.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s style still feels derivative (of the works of Scorsese and Altman, among others). He has an eye for clever sight gags, including an appropriate numerical motif, and seems to love long tracking shots. However, apart from the overuse of the fluid camera, his direction is invigorating, and aptly highlights the performers. He also manages to make a three hour ensemble drama enthralling all the way through, which is no easy task in itself.
To put it simply, Magnolia is mesmerizing. Few ensemble dramas are able to hold your interest as consistently as this film, and leave plenty of room for discussion afterwards.