I speak absolutely no hyperbole when I say that that might have been one of the quickest 3-hour movies I’ve ever seen. As someone who lives and breathes off of long films like The Lord of the Rings and Lawrence of Arabia, take that as high praise.
This epic ensemble drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by New Line Cinema on December 17th, 1999. It got a much wider release about two weeks later on January 7th when it expanded to more cities. Although it managed to gross over $48.5 million at the global box office, it struggled to keep up with stiff competition, not to mention its production budget of $37 million. Even so, it garnered some extremely positive responses from critics and audiences, including a glowing reaction from filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. It also went on to win the top prize at the 50th Berlin International Film Festival the following year and was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, but didn’t win any.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film came along almost fully formed after the success of Anderson’s sophomore feature Boogie Nights. New Line Cinema and Michel De Luca told him he could make whatever he wanted next, and gave him final cut rights without even hearing a pitch. The director reportedly wrote several roles with their actors in mind, and even visited the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to pitch it to one of them in person. Anderson also strongly disapproved of the studio’s marketing campaign, allegedly designing his own poster and cut together a brand new trailer for it.
Set in the then-present-day San Fernando Valley, the film is more of an ensemble piece rather than a focused narrative. Over the course of one day, we encounter the lives of over a dozen different characters- including a pick-up artist, a lonely police officer, a quiz show T.V. host and contestant, an ailing producer, and the kind nurse caring for him -who are interrelated in some ways. As strange and inexplicable things happen to all of them throughout the day, these men and women try to find a chance at love, forgiveness, and happiness, even if they may not deserve it.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a director whom I’ve run hot and cold on in the past, but overall I like his style. There Will Be Blood, The Master, Punch-Drunk Love, and Boogie Nights show that he has a unique view on human nature and behavior. From the extremely detailed characters he paints to the believable performances he draws out of his actors, he’s often overlooked in his generation of filmmakers.
Despite this, I had yet to watch his third feature, which many people I know consider to be his magnum opus. It being finally available on Netflix gave me an opportunity to watch it in no more than two sittings and see how it holds up against the rest of his filmography. Fortunately, Magnolia proves not only to be one of Anderson’s strongest directorial offerings yet but quite possibly one of the best films of the 1990s, period.
It’s quite clear from the history-heavy cold open of montages that Anderson has very sprawling yet specific plans of what to explore here. In another, less distinctive director’s hands, the synopsis given above could easily devolve into an overlong slog of schmaltz and syrupy sentimentality. And while there are a handful of sentimental moments here and there, there’s never a second of the film that feels cheesy or heavy-handed; it’s a fundamentally human story.
Perhaps the best compliment that I can give Magnolia is that while there are many characters to follow here, you become equally invested in almost all of them. They’re all broken in one way or another and want a chance at reconciliation and happiness, even if they don’t openly acknowledge it or even deserve it. And unlike Love, Actually or any of those stupid, overblown holiday movies with star-studded casts, each of them being connected by the slightest threads only makes revelations about their past all the more tragic and engaging.
In a massive ensemble stacked with talent one either side, perhaps the most underrated performer is Jeremy Blackman as Stanley Spector, a child prodigy competing on a popular quiz show. A precocious and extremely insightful young boy, he desperately wants the respect and approval of his adult peers, particularly his father. He appears to be wiser than many of the people surrounding him but feels eternally trapped in his position and doesn’t feel like he’ll amount to anything more than a has-been.
John C. Reilly is also completely brilliant and natural as Jim Kurring, a bumbling but well-meaning police officer. A sharp departure from his future roles in irreverent comedies, he tries to hide his crippling loneliness and apparent ineptitude as an officer to make it appear as though he is control of his life. When an opportunity arise for him to potentially finally find someone who loves him, he tries to put on his best show and even briefly forgets his own shortcomings.
Anderson works with an enormous troupe of actors in varying roles but manages to get the most out of them. Including *DEEP BREATH* Melora Walters, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Melinda Dillon, Alfred Molina, Philip Baker Hall, Ricky Jay, April Grace, Luiz Guzman, and Jason Robards in his final role before his death.
The most talked-about performer, though, is Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, a popular and in-demand pickup artist for unconfident men. This might just be one of his best performances ever, as he uses his typical boyish charisma and charm to give way to a self-obsessed hypocrite. It soon becomes abundantly clear that he uses all of his sexist “self-help” methods and self-aggrandizing monologues as a tool to mask unresolved resentment towards his parents. The sheer range that Cruise demonstrates is a true antithesis to all of his haters, and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
And from a pure filmmaking perspective, Paul Thomas Anderson uses Magnolia to further define his cinematic voice. Shot by longtime collaborator Robert Elswit, the cinematography is almost always roving around from character to character, even using whip pans as a sneaky transition. Comparisons to Scorsese in the camerawork are apt, but it always keeps the action rolling during tense scenes. There are a number of push-ins and slow zooms for more dramatic moments, and even a brilliant tracking shot early on to capture the chaos of a show behind the scenes. A handful of primary colors such as red and blue are also used to help further establish the tone of each storyline.
This goes hand-in-hand with the editing job by Dylan Tichenor, which manages to seamlessly weave together each storyline. Often times, it’ll cute between multiple characters many times whenever it feels thematically appropriate. What’s even more impressive is how despite carrying the weight of multiple different characters and story threads, the tone is completely consistent with each scene. Some are darkly funny, some are sad, some are so uniquely emotional that it’s hard to describe in words.
Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann heavily contributes to the soundtrack of the film, both with recordings of old songs or her own batch of new ones. After the cold-open montage, a revamped version of the song “One” plays over the introduction to all of the main characters and their situations. It perfectly captures the tone of their loneliness and uncertainty while still being fast-paced. Another notable example is the song “Wise Up,” which manages to be sung by many of the actors at once, even though they’re all in different places. It’s a mesmerizing scene where most of them are at their rock-bottoms and try to cling on to anything to keep going on.
Also, Mann wrote and performed an Oscar-nominated original song called “Save Me,” which is saved for the very end. It’s just as melancholy and empathetic as the rest of her soundtrack and manages to bring nearly all of the storylines to a close. The lowkey instrumentation matches the longing of the lyrics and Mann’s supreme vocals and is arguably one of the most underrated songs ever written for a film.
Carrying the weight of multiple characters and story threads but never once feeling overblown in its ambitions, Magnolia is an emotionally resonant ballet of empathy and humanity. After careful consideration of his whole filmography, I feel comfortable enough to say that this might be Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece. Because not only does he handle a sprawling tale with such care and delicacy, but he also wrings incredible performances out of his massive ensemble cast.
Happiness and forgiveness are extremely difficult virtues to come by for many, especially in these scary times. And while there might not be raining frogs anytime soon, it is the humble opinion of this writer that everyone at least deserves a chance for the two.