Bursting with madcap performances and risky melodrama, “Magnolia” manages to leap between thematic lilipads in an overall engaging, albeit often boring story. It feels like a passion project from director Paul Thomas Anderson, a staggering 180 minutes of film devoted to a few misguided souls in the San Fernando Valley. But “Magnolia” often strays too much from artistic superiority into soap opera hijinks, a movie we’d think less of if Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and John C. Reilly weren’t so damn good.
Those unfamiliar with Los Angeles might think the title refers to the bright and colorful Magnolia shrub, with the flower as some allegory for the withering beauty of show business or the decaying dreams of residents in LA. But those who have gorged on double-doubles at the In-n-Out near Universal Studios or escorted their out-of-town moms on the Warner Bros.Tour known that Magnolia is actually a 10-mile-long boulevard, stretching from downtown Burbank all the way through to Sherman Oaks. It’s a major but non-descript street, a path where there is nothing important or historic on the way, although there is always something worthwhile nearby.
Anderson applies both of these Magnolia definitions to his film, a glimpse of beauty and love being withered away, and a sense of the unconnected colliding over the mundane. We follow a cavalcade of choleric souls, possessed by great talent or emotion but stifled by their inability to make or repair meaningful connections. John C. Reilly is Jim, an earnest, klutz of a police officer who wants to fall in love and redeem himself in the eyes of his blue-badged brethren. William H. Macy is Donnie Smith, a one-hit TV wonder from two decades ago that swims in his past fame to ignore the drownings of his personal and salesman life. Julianne Moore is Linda, a supposed gold-digger in dire straits now that her much senior husband Earl is soon to pass. But before he does, Earl is anxious to speak to his estranged, motivational guru son Frank (Tom Cruise) to make amends.
There’s also long-time quiz show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) wrestling with the guilt over whether he molested his daughter Claudia at a young age, and Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the new quiz show prodigy frequently accosted by his angsty dad. There’s a heavy amount of biblical imagery and references in the film, particularly to a passage from Exodus detailing the fall of frogs from the sky, an event that actually does happen in the movie although never explained beyond “this is something that happens.”
It’s certainly the most ambitious of Anderson’s projects from a storytelling perspective, even more-so than the intensely-perfect “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master’s” unending, peeling of paradoxes. The director tries to interweave things so delicately as if all these people being connected somehow makes their stories inherently more interesting or poetic. It’s not so much world-building as web-building, where we lose site of our time and and place and only look at the loose threads keeping picture from unraveling onto the floor. We only find ourselves caring about one story in “Magnolia,” the Tom Cruise subplot with his dad, while everything else that’s bouncing and shouting around him is muted and ignored.
Still, the performances keep our attention steady in boring parts and direct in livelier moments. Cruise shows off his penchant for pathos, while Moore electrifies with a manic energy in a complete contrast from her “Boogie Nights” role. Philip Seymour Hoffman channels calm and charm, and Reilly’s mustached melancholy evokes both disgust and empathy for his sad sack character. They’d never share a table at Big Boy Burgers together, but they all posses the same fallacy in ignoring how their emotional grievances are the result of their own famished actions.
“Magnolia” is admirably complex but not wholly satisfying, a needless, multi-sentence answer to a simple yes or no question. After a movie like “Boogie Nights,” it would be easy for a director like Anderson to think that their talents lied in examining the damaging relationships shared between flawed characters. But “Magnolia” exposed that Anderson’s true penchant is not in crafting eccentric 818-ers, but the tensions between characters who lovingly adapt to new societal changes vs. those who refuse to be defined by a new world. Daniel Planview is a man equally of his time as he is outside of it, and “The Master’s” Freddie Quell battles between whether he wants to be defined by his pre-war self or this seemingly futuristic cult. “Magnolia” is good and could have been great, if it had placed more emphasis on what was happening to its characters beyond its own street. t.