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It’s quite an ambitious step to make a three-hour movie, particularly with inter-connecting storylines and the ensemble characteristics. Director Paul Thomas Anderson ensures that Magnolia is no mangled mess. In botanical terms, this big flower unfurls beautifully with each petal having its own individual exquisiteness – ripening then rotting. In this brilliant, fascinating piece of filmmaking, Anderson delves into the plight of a group of people and retains interest right up until the improbable climax.
He talks about anger and remorse, love and forgiveness in interlocking stories that grip the emotions. These characters’ fates are intertwined even though their paths don’t necessarily collide throughout the film.
Anderson uses his genius to weave this network of characters and stories. This builds the intensity to levels that few films could ever achieve. The ten-minute prologue at the beginning gives us the launch pad for the main stories. It tells of a bizarre triple play of circumstances that seem absurd. In one instance, a man attempts to commit suicide by jumping off a building, yet he lands in a safety net down below. Incredibly, however, an errant bullet fired by his own mother during a domestic dispute strikes him and he is killed. So, Anderson gives a taste of crazy coincidences to get the viewer ready.
To the singing of Aimee Mann’s version of “One” (the old Three Dog Night, Johnny Farnham song), we are introduced to the characters. The commentary, as we discover later, is “One is the loneliest number…” Anderson makes his point straight away. The movie reinforces the people’s isolation. As in his terrific “Boogie Nights”, he tells of remorse and hope amongst the lonely and desperate.
Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is a wealthy television producer who is dying of cancer. His final wish is to see his son, whom he abandoned many years ago. His estranged son is Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a motivational speaker of sorts who teaches men how to get laid. He has a best-selling book “Seduce & Destroy” and, for him, relationships are just that. The rest of the cast is filled with familiar faces from Boogie Nights. Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) is the much younger wife of Earl. She discovers an attachment to her dying husband after initially marrying him for money. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is an ex-boy genius from the 1960s. Life hasn’t been kind since. He is barely in a job and struggles to attract attention at the local bar. Watch for the interchange between him and Thurston Howell (Henry Gibson). Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is the new boy genius who can answer all the questions on the show “What Do Kids Know?” Deep down, though, he wants his father’s love. Stanley’s father only wants his son to earn money to get rich. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the quiz show presenter. He has several skeletons in his closet, particularly as to why his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) refuses to talk to him. Jimmy also has cancer but it doesn’t gain any sympathy from Claudia. He also owes explanations to his wife Rose (Melinda Dillon). Meanwhile, Claudia dulls her senses with sex, drugs and loud music. Police Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) finds himself smitten by Claudia when investigating a disturbance call at her flat.
All of these characters are horribly isolated in their own existence. Each, as in petals on a flower, is separate but still linked together. Anderson explores as to why they operate as they do. One interesting character who doesn’t have any such inhibition, is Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He actually tries to help other people. He is the male nurse for Earl Partridge and he attempts to locate Earl’s son Frank. There is no weak link in the ensemble cast, and we see Tom Cruise at his finest. He plays Frank with the zest of an evangelist, strutting and grinning his way through. His compelling time in coming to terms with his dreadful father is significant. Julianne Moore also delivers a stunning performance as Earl’s young wife, in her traumatic, suicidal circumstances.
From the point of the Earl/Frank confrontation, we witness a stunning sequence of events and it leads to a pivotal moment of the film where, one-by-one you see the characters singing along to Aimee Mann’s glorious tune “Wise Up”. It sums up the theme perfectly and is a great achievement by Anderson. And then he brings the film to an astounding conclusion that must be seen to be believed. With wonderful lines, the dramatic music from Aimee Mann that weaves the pieces together, and cleverly twisted scenes, Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered a magnificent movie. I’m told that, for his next project, he has several musicals floating around in his head, which he’d like to make, involving contributions from Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. He’s already done so much here.