MAGNOLIA (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999, USA) A tale of two Pater Familias and their nucleons bound together by residual force, highly attractive at short distances but quickly decaying and becoming unstable. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson weaves together multiple storylines linked by two dying fathers and suspends cinematic convention with disbelief, allowing the narrative to progress with limitless possibilities.
The film begins with an omniscient narrator describing unrelated events from the past, except that each involved some form of serendipitous intervention implying that coincidence may be more than random chance. This foundational mantra is then built upon as he introduces each character in a sweeping montage, beautifully scored with Aimee Mann’s powerful rendition of the Harry Nilsson classic, examining their lives of loneliness and the reasons for living in quiet desperation. The film’s gravitational pull is centered upon a pair of unheavenly bodies, two despicable fathers who are dying of cancer (though a third father known as the Worm is a dangling participle, never explained), and the physical entities trapped in orbit around them.
Big Earl Partridge and Jimmy Gator are the nucleus of MAGNOLIA, each terminally suffering from a life of regrets and guilt: these malignant tendrils infect everyone around them, touching not only family but also strangers who wander too close. Actor Jason Robards is profoundly sad in his portrayal of Big Earl, lying on his deathbed in a morphine haze, his hands trembling and often reaching out towards some ethereal reality, struggling towards consciousness like a drowning man and choking on his venomous shame: he abandoned his wife and child years ago when she became sick. Philip Baker Hall is magnificent as Jimmy Gator, a famous Game Show host relegated to a syndicated future, his cancerous secret known only to his wife: he raped his own daughter and still seeks her love and affection…though Claudia is now an adult lost in a cocaine fugue.
The ensemble cast is wonderful with two exceptions: Julianne Moore as Earl’s young wife Linda, a woman who married for money but now has fallen in love with her dying husband, and Tom Cruise as Frank, Earl’s abandoned son who has now become a selfish pigheaded buffoon. Julianne Moore becomes annoying and unlikable, between her crying jags and condescending judgment of others: there is very little humanity in Linda to care about: it takes more than a situation to create compassion, especially when introduced to the characters without back-story and little screen time to develop. Tom Cruise is better, imbuing Frank with a bravado that deflects all introspection, as the little boy that must be exorcized from a man’s body. His frenetic performance is both funny and toxic, and becomes understandable when his past is revealed. But Cruise fumbles when he must show emotion, and his embarrassing incompetence during Earl’s death scene is a tragic reminder that his skill is only one-dimensional.
Anderson knows that fiction must make sense but he rewrites the equation and designs a new alchemy: one part coincidence and one part compassion mixed in a base ingredient of frogs, creating an exothermic reaction that warms the hearts around it. There is no salvation offered, no easy answers, only hard lessons and the need to wise up. Final Grade: (B+)