FEW DIRECTORS CONTROL the medium of film so completely, inhabit it so naturally, and utilize it so freely as Paul Thomas Anderson. Another Anderson, Wes, also has an arresting eye for symmetry, theatrical framing, and a ‘just so’ sort of staging, but his characters are almost invariably extruded stylizations. Paul Thomas’s could actually be real people Many also point out P.T.’s allusions to director Robert Altman or sometimes Lumet’s ‘Network’ (which the director even screened for his ‘Magnolia’ crew), and the references are undeniable. Homage is different from derivation, though, and for all his acknowledgement of precedent, Anderson’s films still breathe an air all their own.
To sum up ‘Magnolia’, his second release for a major studio (after 1997’s breakout ‘Boogie Nights’), is simple: a semi-connected series of vignettes exploring the lonely existences of late-20th century Californians. But as with all great ensemble pieces and works of this scale, that description encompasses everything and nothing at once. In this case, not seeing the forest for the trees might actually be a useful tool for reflection—at least as a place to start.
First and easiest to note is the superb photography. ‘Magnolia’ is rife with the poised framing, economy of motion in close-up, and masterful long tracking shots that are a signature of Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit. But equally laudable is the editing by Dylan Tichenor—patient and more patient still. Tichenor often is involved with films (Anderson’s and others’) that give actors their time and the audiences their space: see also ‘Doubt’ and especially ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’. Yet while his long average cut might be considered old-school, the choice of subject and perspective is provocatively modern. Nearly all communication in the film occurs intimately between two individuals, often via the conventional over the shoulder close-up, but the cuts rarely occur when they ‘should’. Entire monologues are portrayed with the camera looking at the listening party, showing only the speaker’s gesticulations in the corner of the frame from time to time until the listener becomes the speaker and our positions shift. The tactic rejects the leading attitude of most Hollywood films—which constantly snap us to attention with one garish cue after another—in favor of an organic and absorbing pace that makes time irrelevant. ‘Magnolia’s three hours pass more efficiently and swiftly than many films half its length.
And what subjects we have to look upon. Every character deserves a page, from the deep humanism of a hospice-worker (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to a men’s self-help celebrity (Tom Cruise) oozing damaged machismo. The actors generally hold up their end of the bargain, too. No pairing is more perfectly natural than William H. Macy as Donnie Smith, a frumpy everyman as an adult despite childhood celebrity as the Quiz Kid on TV. (Poor Donnies—Hollywood loves to demean them.) As the film progresses Macy slides his character into a lyrical, tragic existentialism and then a pitiful, wry conclusion on par with anything he’s done for the Coen Brothers. This transformation is cued at a sports bar when Donnie emerges from his booth and the camera follows in a slow-motion pan across the room—soon to be his stage of self-discovery and abasement. The revelation is aided by a remarkable tête-à-tête with Henry Gibson, white-haired, debonair in a velvet blazer who waves bills coyly at a hunk bartender. Macy slouches into the barstool beside him and the two casually slip into an exchange that is half a conversation, half a shared soliloquy on life and love. The utter lack of pretension in its presentation is essential and disarming.
On the other end of the spectrum, perfectly grounded and uniquely forthright, is John C. Reilly—tender, earnest, and vulnerable behind a thin veil of ego that accompanies his policeman’s badge. His sudden and absolute fall for the coke-addict Claudia Gator seems forced at first, but in reassessing the mission statement monologues he practices in his cruiser, waiting for ‘Cops’ to come calling, we can deduce that he has also been waiting for someone like Claudia for a long time. What at first seems like naïveté is actually a deep and unshakeable faith in himself, his God, and humanity. Donnie Smith, bloody-mouthed and teary-eyed, says to him words they both feel, “I have a lot of love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”
As the hospice ward of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards delivers a capstone performance: terminally-ill and confined to his bed, his illness seems as much to stem from the guilt of abandoning his family decades past than any physical malady. Yet this would be the last film he ever made.
All of Anderson’s actors show a commitment and singular focus that belies ‘Magnolia’s sprawling structure. In business management gurus talk about getting employees to ‘buy in’ to a corporate culture, and Anderson clearly has such unanimous support. Perhaps ‘Magnolia’s greatest success is that, despite all odds, its many fragments submit to Anderson’s guidance and becomes one story—not nine. But it’s also a story that makes its deepest marks when we’re actually watching it and not later, caught up in our own introspection. ‘Magnolia’s characters, isolated though they may be in their separate vignettes, rely upon and relate to one another in such a way that the audience feels less a participant in the progress than a patient observer.
Anderson declared to his crew on the first day of shooting that they “should unashamedly try to make a great movie.” And in some ways they have. But in reaching so far ‘Magnolia’ also occasionally stretches into stagy self-absorption . The sheer quantity of teary confrontations and pivotal life moments intercut over a waxing violin threnody (not to mention the spontaneous song its characters suddenly begin to sing, mostly alone, staring out into the vastness emptiness of their lives) stretches and then mockingly twangs the band of credulity in our attentive faces.
But then stunningly, startlingly, and in a complete reversal of tenor: the frogs. To place such a jarring and patently bizarre twist in a film’s delicate denouement shows Anderson’s greatest confidence in himself, his story, his actors, and his sense of humor. The last is particularly crucial, as it (partially) disarms criticism of ‘Magnolia’ as too aloof, didactic, or a purely narcissistic Hollywood drama.
Moreover, there are subplots left unfinished and characters hinted at but never introduced. Anderson is content to leave these ends loose and let them fray. Some were tucked into place by earlier and longer rough cuts of the film, but their absence here is part of the queer fabric of life, where patches go missing and some corners don’t quite align. This authentic touch rewards our close attention but not obsessive analysis. There are mysteries here, as in life, that no cleverness could stitch together into a seamless array of pat endings and feedback loops of vaguely reassuring closure. No, ‘Magnolia’ is not ‘Crash’. This is just something that happens.