“And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite your whole territory with frogs.” -Exodus 8:2
The book says, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
Ricky Jay tells us of three stories about death; a suicide attempt, an freak occurrence involving a plane and a scuba diver, and a murder/mugging committed by three men who share the name of the scene of the crime. All of these are built upon extreme coincidence, but he argues that it isn’t wise to reduce everything to a “matter of chance.”
There are countless films that detail the effects that simple actions humans take may reverberate on others in ways we can’t possibly predict. Most of those movies (such as “Crash,” “Babel”) suck. They twist themselves into knots trying to bring all of the people and events together, the contrivances squeezing out any larger statements about destiny, faith, etc.
But what happens if you pour in Biblical references, generational bitterness, child abuse and cosmic sing-alongs to Aimee Mann songs? Paul Thomas Anderson, America’s preeminent filmmaking genius decided in 1999, at the spry age of 29 to follow up “Boogie Nights” with something even more audacious than the fall of a porno community; an operatic storm called “Magnolia,” a three-hour opus capturing the lives of broken people of different ages and stations over one stormy day in Los Angeles. What he came up with is one of the most unique and ambitious modern American movies, which stands out because in 2013 “unique” and “ambitious” are becoming scarce adjectives in Hollywood.
All of Anderson’s films are first and foremost about people; specifically how people exploit each other for ungainly needs. There is Daniel Plainview exploiting his son in “There Will Be Blood” to gain sympathy from prospective commoners waiting to be swindled. “Punch-Drunk Love” sees Adam Sandler get abused by his sisters which adds to his anti-social behavior. This trend has never been writ larger than in “Magnolia,” which looks at, among numerous other sociological concerns, how this parasitic treatment of children, spouses, etc. causes damage across generations.
Jimmy Gator (given a tragic weariness by Philip Baker Hall) is the dying host of the quiz show “What Do Kids Know?”; with only two months to live, he tries to reach out to his estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Waters) a high-strung wreck who tries to numb the pain of this troubled family history with sex and cocaine, but may have a chance of salvation when she meets Jim ( John C. Reilly, who can do soulful doofus better than anybody ), a good-hearted but lonely and painfully naive cop who sees right past the wreckage of Claudia’s personal life and starts to feel something for her.
“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (a heartbreaking William H. Macy) is a hapless former winner of “What Do Kids Know?” who’s been struck by lightning and horrible luck ever since his parents stole his prize money and left him with nothing but lust for a local bartender, who Donnie tries to impress by getting unnecessary braces for his teeth.
Stanley (Jeremy Blackman, one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen) is the current child prodigy dominating the show, forced by his cruel father (Michael Bowen) to sacrifice his own happiness to compete for prize money he will likely never see. The show’s producer Earl Partridge (the great Jason Robards in his final performance) is on his deathbed, ravaged with cancer, being taken care of by his devoted nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his guilt-stricken wife Linda (a mannered but ultimately devastating Julianne Moore), who disappears into a sea of pills to quell her guilt over the numerous infidelities she’s committed. Earl has one dying wish: to reconcile with his estranged son Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise, blowing up his movie-star persona), a misogynist lunatic who teaches a seminar called “Seek and Destroy,” telling impotent men to “respect the cock and tame the cunt.” But a TV interview will unleash emotional turmoil he’s kept under lock and key his entire life.
And on top of all the hell these people are going through, gray clouds are forming over the City of Angels.
For the next three hours, “Magnolia” depicts the enlightenment and in some cases damnation of these wayward souls. This film feels like a modern opera, with its grand emotional crescendos, and a thundering score by Jon Brion. It isn’t an accident that a segment of Mozart’s “Carmen” shows up on the soundtrack as well. But the focus on this movie is about how these characters deal with turmoil created by the people around them, especially when children are involved.
Take Jimmy Gator, who has a truckload of demons to go along with his Emmys. His attempt to reconcile with his daughter Claudia fails, and he can’t stand the fact that he is near death and he’s going to spend the rest of his time going through the duldrums of hosting this showcase to exploit spoiled child prodigies. The bags under Hall’s basset hound eyes seem to get bigger scene by scene. Throw in the secrets he’s keeping from his wife (Melinda Dillon) and we have a man who wants to atone for his past mistakes, both as a parent and as a husband, but he isn’t prepared for the blowback.
Claudia is a shattered mess. She screams madness at her father when he confesses that he’s dying, and the cocaine she inhales like crazy makes her seem like a feral animal, who blasts Aimee Mann to drown out the nightmares of her past and present. Jim comes to her apartment to see about a noise complaint, and all of Claudia’s jittering, high-strung tendencies seem to bounce off him. He tries to do good in the world, but he is lost within his own optimism. A young black boy delivers rap that contains information about a recent murder to him, but he doesn’t hear it, he gets hung up over the racial slurs and the profanity. He is well-meaning, but he can’t seem to process what’s really happening with Claudia, or the world around him.
This is one of the primary themes of “Magnolia”: people trying to do the right thing (at least their idea of it) and finding that it may actually make things worse, specifically the bonds between children and their parents. Such as when Phil tries to contact Frank to reconcile with Earl, who is finally coming to terms with how horribly he treated his family for much of his life. Much to the chagrin of Linda. Linda can no longer live with herself, her guilt over cheating on Earl while cancer ravages him is breaking her down, typified by a scene where she goes on a hysterical screed against some judgmental pharmacists.
Then there are the other children in this movie. Stanley is a genius, able to answer all of the ridiculously complicated questions on “What Do Kids Know” before Gator even finishes reading them. But he’s tired of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jeremy Blackman’s face bears a strange resemblance to Maria Falconetti’s in Carl Dreyer’s immortal 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Both are the subjects of great suffering; Stanley is forced by his asshat of a father (Michael Bowen) to be on this show and the other kid contestants make him answer all of the questions. It’s when the producers refuse to let Stanley go to the bathroom during the show that he finally breaks down and has his own personal reckoning. Blackman’s performance is amazing; his expressive, pale face able to represent all sorts of sadness, embarrassment and frustration.
Donnie Smith does not get to publicly destroy the show that defined and ruined his life. He sits in a bar longing for a bartender who doesn’t even notice him, he just lost his job and he engages in a philosophical debate with an older patron (Henry Gibson), who also has feelings for the bartender. Donnie is what may happen to Stanley if he confuses exploitation with happiness. The patron warns Donnie that it’s “dangerous to confuse children with angels.” But what Donnie and Anderson are arguing for in “Magnolia” is that this is bullshit; the destruction of children’s lives can have reverberations across decades.
None more so than one Frank T.J. Mackey. His “Seduce and Destroy” seminar teaches men to destroy any and all feeling toward women; they are meant for sex and nothing more. One poster says to think of them as “sperm receptacles.” The seminar scenes are powered by the crazed energy that only Tom Cruise can bring. But then during a TV interview with an intrepid reporter his past, and his own nature, are exposed as lies. I single out Cruise because his performance, far and away the best he’s ever given, is emblematic for the whole movie. Not because Anderson slowly deconstructs and explodes Cruise’s singular movie-star charisma. Mackey is, like Stanley, Donnie and Claudia, a scared, broken and angry child, forced to take care of his dying mother as a teenager and then watch her die while his father abandoned them, then spent his life teaching others not to have emotional connections with women; it’s how he avoids catharsis, by turning everyone around him into sociopaths. Mackey’s confrontation with Earl (given a powerful, Lear-like portrayal by Robards, who died not long after the film’s release) is shattering. Mackey becomes a boy, howling for love and approval, knowing he will never get it.
P.T. Anderson was 29 when he made this movie, and already his command of the medium was breathtaking. Later films like “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood” were slowed-down, almost eerie in their minimalism. But “Magnolia” shows Anderson still in pastiche mode, with odes to Scorsese and especially Robert Altman showing up repeatedly. But this mournful, operatic tale is bursting with energy. I’m amazed that cinematographer Robert Elswit didn’t collapse from exhaustion on the set, since the camerawork is so dizzying; zooming, circling, tracking and all sorts of other gymnastics in service of the wunderkind Anderson’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vision. His use of music is also peerless, with the Wagnerian heft of Brion’s score and the jaunty melancholy in Aimee Mann’s original songs.
Anderson’s craft, in concert with his screenplay, shows a filmmaker who cares deeply about people, whether they be decent, monstrous, dying or all of the above. These lives build toward happiness and despair, typified by the group sing along to Mann’s “Wise Up,” a piano-driven plea for inner strength. We think we know how these stories are going to wrap up.
And then “chance” intervenes, and something extraordinary happens.
The Biblical downpour that closes this film strikes some as pretentious and nonsensical. But it makes total sense, not just because of the allusions in countless scenes to the quote from Exodus at the top of this review. It hits home that something cosmic, maybe God or maybe just unusual weather patterns, can intrude on humanity when we least expect it. Some of these people find peace in the storm’s wake; others find death, damnation, abandonment. Anderson is our generation’s most gifted director and “Magnolia” is still his wildest and most profoundly human film to date because it throws everything that encompasses the human experience into the world of these characters, both literally and figuratively raining it down upon them. The only thing we can do in the face of chance and wild coincidence is to bring an umbrella.