[box cover]

Magnolia: Platinum Series

New Line Home Video

Starring John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall,
Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards,
Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, and Jeremy Blackman

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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Dirk Diggler may have had a giant shlong, but Paul Thomas Anderson has balls. Big epic balls.

Anderson's third film, Magnolia, is the kind of movie studios hate. And for good reason. It followed instant classic Boogie Nights — a film which gave risky subject matter instant mass appeal with a hot, hip cast, dazzling visual invention, classic narrative structure, a killer soundtrack, and the double marketing boost of tapping into two contemporary media obsessions: the 1970s and porno flicks. Boogie was a surprise hit and a damn good one. And its breathtaking style, boundless energy, and sharp humor marked Anderson as a brash and entertaining auteur. Which meant that his next film would be eagerly anticipated.

So Magnolia had hype on its side, and yet another hip cast featuring several Boogie alumni and one superstar Tom Cruise. But instead of dishing out another fun, hip foray into society's cultural wasteland, Anderson made a quirky and difficult movie about pain. Suddenly Anderson's decadent disco party turned into a dour box office dirge.

Magnolia is a most perplexing film — sort of like David Lynch's Wild at Heart — in that it is at once both a flawed and yet potent masterpiece, and also the kind of film you hedge at recommending to anyone but the people you know best. And maybe not even them.

Running over three hours, Magnolia begins with a brief prelude on chance, coincidence, and the possibility that, sometimes, what looks like chance or coincidence may very well be the result of some force much less random. From there, Anderson launches an unhinged carousel of hurt and regret that spins the surrounding elements into a wild but calming storm of remorse, understanding, forgiveness, and hope.

There are dying men looking back in guilt and anguish at their mean and petty lives; there are wounded children wrapping themselves in cloaks of self-pity and misdirected emotional release; and there are wives and mothers who shudder in horror and sorrow at their own passivity and complicity in this mess of tattered lives. Repeated often is the phrase, "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."

If it sounds thick, it is. Anderson operates this time from a place of brazen, poetic soul searching, and he directs his cast to play their hearts on their sleeves. It can be hard to watch. Sometimes because it manifests in shrill and grating tirades, but most often because the climactic moments are so raw and personal — and so deeply realized by the wonderful cast — that it frequently feels embarrassingly invasive to witness the spectacle.

It must be admitted that in broaching such precious matter, Anderson occasionally falters from his usual narrative grace. Like in way he introduces his characters in a long, swirling montage, during which Aimee Mann's dissonant cover of Three Dog Night's "One (is the Loneliest Number)" fights for attention with noisy exposition and self-consciously showy camera moves. It's a tricky prospect: opening a movie with nine main, tangentially related characters, but Anderson makes it about as complicated and overbearing as he can. Its the clumsiest and least effective of Anderson's many conceits in the film (along with the unwieldy notion that a major television network would ever risk broadcasting live a quiz show featuring unpredictable child contestants). But these forgivable missteps — and a few leaden quips of obscure dialog — are a trifle within the context and success of Anderson's other risky narrative conceits, which are simultaneously shocking and miraculous in their invention, audacity, and emotional truth.

Once Magnolia gets rolling, it winds almost effortlessly through the tangled traumas of a Los Angeles community. It recalls Robert Altman's fine Raymond Carver adaptation Short Cuts in subject only; Anderson is so full of empathy for all of his characters that Altman's cynical critique feels hollow by comparison.

Anderson takes a couple of unusual narrative liberties later in the film that may set many viewers aback, but those who can roll with these bold, true choices are in for a magnificent, profoundly effective emotional experience — no doubt informed and charged by Anderson's feelings about his own father's death.

Hats off to the great cast for being brave enough to throw themselves into challenging, emotionally naked roles, particularly the nine principals: Julianne Moore as an impending trophy widow; Jason Robards as her cancer-ridden husband; Philip Seymour Hoffman as his lonely nurse; Tom Cruise as a messianic misogynist; John C. Reilly as a lovelorn cop; Melora Walters as a haunted cokehead; Philip Baker Hall as a crumbling game show host; William H. Macy as a wayward former child genius; and wonderful young actor Jeremy Blackman as a child prodigy wary of his deadbeat father's motivations. Rarely is there a false note amongst them — or from the impressive supporting cast, which includes Melinda Dillon as Baker Hall's wife, Alfred Molina as Solomon Solomon, Luis Guzman as Luis Guzman, and Laugh-In alumnus Henry Gibson as the enigmatic — and enigmatically named — Thurston Howell.

The transfer on Magnolia: Platinum Series is great, in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with both DD 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio mixes, but the overall package fails to meet up to the standard of previous Anderson discs. Although Magnolia comes as a two-disc set, the second disc of supplemental materials contains only teasers, trailers, two partially deleted sequences featuring Cruise, and a slight and rarely insightful video diary by Anderson, which hints at an entire deleted subplot with no elaboration. I think Anderson's reluctance to record a commentary track for this personal film will haunt him, and I'm laying heavy wagers we'll see a second, feature-packed Magnolia: Special Edition sometime in the future. Nevertheless, it's one of the best films of the 1990s.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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