When he pitched Boogie Nights to the studio, Paul Thomas Anderson famously demanded three hours and an NC-17 rating, and was told he had to pick one. He eventually missed both marks — but with his next outing, 1999’s Magnolia, he crossed the three-hour barrier in style, delivering a whopping 188-minute behemoth of a movie that unites a sprawling ensemble cast in pursuit of some equally outsized themes.
As with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, Anderson tips his hand early on with Magnolia, establishing the tone with a camera that’s more restlessly omniscient than ever — from the opening shots, you know you’re in the presence of cinema. He spends the first 20 minutes of the movie introducing the viewer to characters who are in the midst of life-consuming struggles with fundamental things like death, violence, and love; clearly, you’re in for some statements about Very Big Things.
Fortunately, Anderson assembled a stable of outstanding actors to help him get his points across. Aside from the usual suspects — resurfacing P.T. vets included John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Philips Seymour Hoffman and Baker Hall, Melora Walters, William H. Macy, and Luis Guzmán — he made the wise decision to cast Jason Robards in the key role of Earl Partridge, a dying TV producer whose ties to several cast members (most notably Frank T.J. Mackey, the self-styled love guru who provides many of Magnolia‘s more unpleasant moments) drive much of the film.
Always a reliable actor, Robards delivers one of his finest performances in Magnolia, which sounds kind of funny, given that he doesn’t do much besides lie in a bed while the life drains out of his character. But that’s why he’s such an outstanding anchor for the movie — he does everything with nothing here, stripping his craft down to the bare essentials of voice and eyes to play a man struggling to atone for his sins while he still has time. And he’s perfectly matched with Hoffman, who — given a rare opportunity to play a character in an Anderson movie who isn’t heartbreakingly delusional or an abrasive weirdo — lends an element of much-needed normalcy to a movie that takes place in a world largely populated by broken people.
Some of those people include Partridge’s wife Linda (Moore), who harbors plenty of guilt of her own; Jimmy Gator (Hall), a legendary quiz show host who’s trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Walters); Donnie Smith (Macy), a former contestant on Gator’s show whose life has gone deeply awry; and Jim Kurring (Reilly), a good-hearted (albeit slightly incompetent and emotionally crippled) police officer. While not all of their stories initially seem to have much to do with one another, you know the drill — by the time the end credits roll, you will have been given a dramatic case study in the ways in which Everything Is Connected.
Again, Anderson gives himself a lot of ground to cover here, and while he occasionally seems unable to resist making his points overly explicitly — in fact, one entire scene, which rests on some awkward exchanges between Macy and Henry Gibson in a bar, feels like it was taken from a clumsier film — for the most part, Magnolia finds Anderson making his points with about as much restraint as anyone could expect from a three-hour film. Are some lines thunderingly obvious? Do we have to hang on through some tonal skips (not to mention a mad bit of ACTING! from Tom Cruise in the final act)? Yes, absolutely, but the movie’s flaws are kept to a fair minimum given the mad jumble of narrative.
Of course, we can’t talk about Magnolia without discussing the spontaneous Aimee Mann singalong and the frogs. I won’t delve too deeply into the particulars, so as not to spoil them for anyone who hasn’t already seen the movie, but they were definitely part of what kept me away from it when it was in theaters. I mean, a movie this long represents a serious investment of the viewer’s time, and if you’ve heard about these scenes outside the context of the rest of the film, it’s easy to conclude that Anderson is disrespecting that investment by jerking his audience around with flights of fancy.
So… is he guilty of that here? After finally watching Magnolia, I’m inclined to cut Anderson some slack. The movie warns you from the get-go that the world is an inscrutable place, filled with mysteries that impart horror and awe in equal measure, and if that provides a convenient loophole for some of the weirder stuff he gets us into here, then so be it; anyway, I’d like to think what he’s really trying to tell us is that life holds infinite potential for love in spite of our unworthiness — that literally anything can happen at any moment.
That’s kind of a gauzy, soft-focus interpretation for a movie where children are murdered, abused, humiliated, and possibly molested; where fathers’ sins are visited repeatedly on their sons and daughters; where death can mean a final, awful confrontation with what Robards’ character eloquently refers to as “the regret that we make.” But as so often happens with Anderson, in the end, everything leads back to love — where we find it, how we give it, how we move forward when it’s denied, and the power recognizing it can give us.
Speaking of which: Tomorrow, we fall in Punch-Drunk Love. Until then…
Monday: Hard Eight
Tuesday: Boogie Nights
Thursday: Punch-Drunk Love
Friday: There Will Be Blood
Saturday: The Master