Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights disappointed those who were hoping for more Dirk Diggler and his prosthetic schlong. At 182 minutes it also caught out those who were watching at the cinema with a beer or two inside them – knotted legs don’t make for maximum movie fun. At home with a pause button it’s pure luxury. Stylistically it’s heavily in debt to one of Anderson’s readily acknowledged influences, Robert Altman – the overlapping dialogue, the wandering camera and the faintly disengaged performances. By which I mean the actors are not all constantly presenting three-quarter profiles to camera (no, not even Tom Cruise).
Yes, Tom Cruise. How often is it that you can see Tom Cruise in a film that’s not a Tom Cruise film? In terms of plot Magnolia is multi-stranded, with lots of characters, each starring, to some extent, in their own mini-movie. That’s Altmanesque too (see Short Cuts). But Anderson’s theme is all his own. He follows a bunch of flash, empty characters – among them the trophy wife (Julianne Moore), the over-eager sex guru (Tom Cruise), the former child star (William H Macy), the ineffectual policeman (John C Reilly) – as they descend into an existential inferno of their own making. Except for one man (Jason Robards), whose take on existential activity is coloured by the fact that the Grim Reaper is sharpening the scythe in the hospital ward his intubated body is currently occupying. No, not literally the Grim Reaper, that was a figure of speech. Though at the end of the film, after he’s spun his separate stories closer to coherence, Anderson does do something which shatters the absolute matter-of-factness of everything that’s come before. And if you haven’t got wind of his most oddball of endings, I won’t ruin it. Magnolia is not a film for plot-junkies but it does deliver something rather magical in its place – virtuoso zeitgeist film-making with a message that could have been lifted from a medieval morality play.
© Steve Morrissey 2013