Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson || Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, JoAnne Sellar, Dylan Tichenor, Michael De Luca
Screenplay by: Paul Thomas Anderson || Starring: Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Melinda Dillon, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters
Music by: Jon Brion, Aimee Mann || Cinematography: Robert Elswit || Editing by: Dylan Tichenor || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 188 minutes
Like many American auteurs of the 1990s and early 2000s (e.g. David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino), Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) embraces the ensemble narrative and eschews dependence on singular protagonists, both key attributes of Magnolia. PTA’s self-proclaimed best movie features an ensemble cast whose narrative is composed of a mosaic of interrelated characters striving to find personal growth and redemption in the film’s San Fernando Valley setting.
Connections between these players range from familial and interpersonal relationships to more loosely tethered strings of vague philosophical themes and various Biblical references. At times, the links connecting Magnolia’s massive cast stretches thin to the point where it feels like we’re watching a series of random characters assigned to miscellaneous narratives, related in no meaningful way other than everybody’s dire need to seek psychological therapy. When the film is in rhythm, though, PTA’s narrative reveals touching moments of character growth and dramatic introspection. Magnolia is a soul-searching type of film, using its diverse cast to examine the human condition, as well as people’s universal search for happiness, forgiveness, and existential meaning.
The film’s lack of a protagonist does hurt the narrative at times. This is not a near-flawless execution of story pastiche a la Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) or Inglourious Basterds (2009). The movie tackles meaningful material, but its expansive, sprawling scope often lacks focus. Many characters, such as Tom Cruise’s sex-crazed, narcissistic, peddling pickup artist, John C. Reilly’s dutifully religious, woefully unconfident policeman, and William H. Macy’s endlessly infatuated gay businessman are interesting and passionate, but others, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and Philip Baker Hall, are neither.
The film’s bloated length also drags. As fascinating as the narrative can be, the script’s slow pacing can feel mind-numbing at times. I’m not sure how much PTA could have cut down given the film’s complex, interlaced format, but as it stands now, the story doesn’t keep you riveted by its rhythm.
With that said, Magnolia is ambitious if only for the way it dissects and studies the human consciousness. The movie sometimes struggles to convey its conceptual messages through its ensemble cast, but the reality is that it succeeds more than it fails. When Magnolia is on a roll, it’s a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Its stronger characters stir deep emotions within you time and time again, either through passionate monologues, tearful conversations, or touching songs. During these moments, PTA’s cross-cutting is elegant, sifting from location to location via clever cuts and smooth voiceovers, building connections between characters that have never physically met in the entire story.
For better or worse, this movie is probably tied with The Master (2012) as Anderson’s least accessible film. You have to be in the right mood to appreciate Magnolia, and it’s no small investment at over three hours in length, but it’s still an impressive achievement despite its faults and intimidating non-traditional approach. To that end, it features some career-highlight performances from John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, and Tom Cruise. Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to the San Fernando Valley may not have much overt style, but it’s got plenty of substance, and its ambitious story structure will have you thinking for days.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Magnolia’s ambitious narrative structure takes center stage without a main character and without fear. It’s a collection of interconnected stories that come together in a satisfying way.
—However… several characters are forgettable, fulfilling their obligatory narrative function and nothing more. This film has less of a right to be three hours than most Hindi movies, and that’s saying something.