Directed Viewing: “Magnolia” and the Modern Epic

Welcome to Directed Viewing, the multi-part series examining the films of a given director. This is done, in part, to not only fill in my own cinematic gaps, but to try to form some sort of greater understanding of an artist out of their entire body of work. Sure, it’s a little reliant upon auteur theory, but it’s also a whole lot of fun.

We continue with Paul Thomas Anderson, who, post Boogie Nights found himself offered essentially a blank check by New Line, who had made all sorts of money by backing his last picture. Given final cut of whatever he produced without even a concrete idea being made, Paul Thomas Anderson went off to create on his own terms without supervision. Which really explains how we ended up with

Magnolia (1999)

For the first fifteen minutes of Magnolia, we are tossed into a headspace and left to sink or swim in it. An unidentified narrator talks about coincidence as he presents three historical examples of extreme, elaborate moments of contrivance. You know, the point where the universe comes together to seemingly make the impossible possible. Call it fate, call it random chance, but that’s what we’re presented with in rapid-fire, breathless narration before the movie spins out into the present, introducing an array of characters in a number of complicated situations. It is watertight cinematic exposition, but there’s just so much of it, landing like a brick right at the front of the movie.

Magnolia is a movie about people, namely a bunch of people all spread out across the San Fernando Valley on one fateful but otherwise innocuous day. Naming them all and their backgrounds would take up nearly the average size of one of these articles all by themselves, so let’s just run down some of the notables: John C Reilly plays a Dudley Do-Right style police officer, all earnestness and romanticism. Philip Baker Hall plays the host of a long-running quiz show, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. William H. Macy plays a down and out spokesperson who has spent his life trading on his name as the record holder for child contestant on the aforementioned quiz show. Julianne Moore plays the young trophy wife of a dying Jason Robards, tended to in his last hours by Phillip Seymour Hoffman who plays a hospice nurse. And Tom Cruise plays a motivational spokesperson selling wildly misogynistic seduction techniques through infomercials and seminars.

Whew. Okay. Still in board? Yeah, I know, I didn’t give anybody names. Trust me, if I bothered to do that we’d never be able to reduce this to a manageable thing.

Philip Baker Hall has less to do than many other actors, but manages to steal his scenes anyway.

Anyway, John C Reilly ends up meeting and falling for Philip Baker Hall’s daughter, who’s a drug addict who hates her father and seems primed for self-destruction before Reilly knocks on her door for a loud argument she had had earlier when her father came to tell her she’s dying. She rushes to flush her cocaine and ends up having him over for coffee. Reilly, ignorant in a dumb, sweet way, ends up saving her through sheer optimism. Macy’s character is sunk into a deep depression, constantly running out of money, constantly trying to catch the eye of a bartender at the bar he visits every day. He’s a man of great emotion left alone to stew in it, looking for an outlet. Tom Cruise’s character, in the course of an interview given while the events of the film take place, is revealed to be the long-lost son of Robards’ dying patriarch, abandoned at 14 by his father to take care of his mother as she was dying of cancer. Robards’ dying wish is to see his son, but Cruise has been living under a fake history to build his media empire around for years.

If this all sounds exhausting that’s because it is. Magnolia belongs to the rare breed of modern epics that focus not on scope, or of time, but of the tapestry of characters. You know the type: Best Picture controversy Crash and fever dream Rock vehicle Southland Tales are almost among this type, and bear no small resemblance to Magnolia. This is better than both of those movies, made with a typical sense of restraint and skill, with an eye to coaxing amazing performances out of every single one of the dozen or so major characters in the movie. But that doesn’t change its innate nature, which feels at times like trying to watch three movies at once.

In fact, the skill with which Anderson directs his movies might actually prove to be a big drawback to this kind of film, as Magnolia’s stories are so walled off in tone that it really does feel like you’re watching separate stories instead of a big, sprawling story with many threads. You know that eventually lines will cross and combine, because that’s the kind of story it presents itself as from the outset, but the structure of the film makes that idea seem forced. It’s strange, as Anderson is coming off of a movie that blends stories so seamlessly, but Boogie Nights was a singular story with a singular thread of theme and development. Magnolia, adhering so stridently to this idea of coincidence, goes out of its way to keep its threads running on just different enough timetables to not give the whole a similar momentum.

This isn’t to say Magnolia isn’t without its central focus. Far from it, in fact. Not only does it explore the nature of coincidence and connectedness that this sub-sub-sub genre of drama is known for, but it happens to a particularly well-rounded look at regret and failed relationships, especially those between parents and children. Sure, there’s a strange over-reliance upon cancer as a central theme, but the various degrees to which long-standing grudges and tragedies and betrayals are laid bare by death are examined in a surprising amount of nuance. Not everyone gets catharsis, and some that do end up realizing they didn’t want it. In that respect, Magnolia is a triumph of theme. It feels like a complete, well-rounded statement.

My reaction while watching Magnolia.

It’s not really a problem, then, to admit that I don’t particularly like Magnolia. It doesn’t particularly matter that it’s the best version of this type of movie I’ve seen when I just don’t like this type of movie. The various things it tries to do are commendable, and I don’t doubt the skill with which they’re executed, but it’s too much and I end up feeling totally disassociated with the movie. I’d much rather have watched nearly any of the various plots as its own, separate movie. Sure, it probably wouldn’t have been as ambitious, but I also wouldn’t have felt browbeaten by the weight of the film.

Part of this has to do with the star power behind the film, too. Anderson’s a director that seems to thrive on big pictures pinned upon the power and charisma of a single actor. That actor can be one of the greatest working today (Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood) or not actually that great of an actor (Mark Wahlberg), but it seems to be his greatest gift. Everyone else becomes ensemble, for better or worse, and that’s just how his movies seem to all be constructed. Well, aside from Magnolia, that is, that seems to have all stars and no supporting characters. Maybe that’s part of the exhaustion. Everyone is coded cinematically as the lead. Which might do wonders for realism where everyone is mostly on the same small, egocentric page, but on film it simply demands too much of the audience. Pick a star, stick with it.

Which leads me to what I really want to talk about, which is Tom Cruise. I’ve never really been a hater of Cruise, who has managed to work with some of the best directors in history despite being fairly limited as an actor. He’s always had star presence, but when forced to ‘act’ usually falls back on a certain primness and stony-faced intensity to try to carry scenes. Anderson, or Cruise, but probably both smartly avoid that here: Cruise’s character is a loud, energetic huckster of a sham of a man. He peddles his strange self-help seduction/actualization techniques in the most gross, juvenile language, a precursor to every bro-y asshole that arose in the decade after the movie.  Yet buried behind all that, coming out slowly over the course of the entire movie, mostly revealed in evaded questions and small gestures and looks, is a wounded kid who is still running from his childhood, covering up his traumas with a lot of swagger and a torrent of slick words. It’s a smart piece of character work, sad and hateful and ultimately sympathetic (if still maybe a bit unforgivable) and it is easily Cruise’s best performance to date.

Best part of the movie? I'm as surprised as you.

When I think about Magnolia in a way that allows me to neatly sum it up I’m kind of at a loss, honestly. It’s a good film, probably a great film–in fact Anderson says he doubts he will ever top it and considers it his masterpiece–but I just can’t quite get on board. It’s a strange thing to ‘get’ and appreciate everything a film does and still not feel any sort of engagement with it. But, well, there it is. It’s not a bad conclusion, but it’s a messy one suited to an equally messy film. The best I can say is it asks more and strives for more than many directors try to do their entire careers. That, at least, is fully and truly a wonderful thing, no matter what anyone who struggles with it will say.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Directed Viewing: “Magnolia” and the Modern Epic

  1. I do agree with you that it is a demanding movie, but I would never call it messy. Quite the contrary, actually. His masterpiece indeed where everything is perfectly in place. So beautifully set… It’s so weird to me when people say they didn’t feel connected to it. I remember perfectly the cinrcumstances in which I watched it. I’m from Brazil, I was 18 and living alone in São Paulo, one of the largest cities in the world, to go to college. I had an afternoon off and decided to head to a Blockbuster and see if I got lucky with a good movie. I have to tell you… It’s crazy the amount and variety of the films I watch and I’ very critical. This time I wanted something with a recognizable cast. So, of course, Magnolia sounded about right, specially because I had heard that reviews were completely all over the place. Some loved, some hated. When the movie ended, I started crying. And I mean sobbing. I couldn’t really understamd why. I cried so hard for so long, that the dvd player shut off automatically and I was left with the blue screen of my TV for at least another 1 hour. I was on the floor, crying like I had never done before. That was how affected I got. I’ll never understand completly what I was crying for.but everything in it calls deeply to my soul. My mother is a scripts professor at a University here, I showed it to her and she was mesmerized. It is to date one of my favorite movies. I don’t know if you’ve watched it more than once, but I’m hoping you will watch it again soon. The second time is even more powerful. And the third, and so on.

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