Bucket List Movie #456: Magnolia (1999)
Like most people, I tend to prefer the 3-act plot structure. Regardless of what the story is about, there's something comforting about knowing that there's a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even the most innovative directors favor the 3-act plot structure.
But then, most directors aren't Paul Thomas Anderson. In my not-so-humble opinion, Anderson is one of the few directors working today who consistently gets away with eschewing linear storytelling, because you can always tell that he truly has something to say. He just won't say it in the most conventional fashion, that's all. Anderson has adhered to straightforward plots before, most notably in one his most loved and acclaimed films, Boogie Nights. The rise, fall, and redemption of porn star, how much more direct can a director get (try saying that ten times really fast)? Anderson is one of the most unassuming geniuses working in Hollywood: an affable and boyish every-guy and admitted fan of Adam Sandler movies, Anderson's most unsung gift is coaxing great performances from the most unlikely actors. From Heather Graham as heartbreaking Roller Girl in Boogie Nights, Sandler as unhinged yet sympathetic Barry in Punch-Drunk Love, to Tom Cruise as an obnoxious, loutish motivational speaker in today's BLM, Magnolia.
Let me get an unpopular opinion out of the way: I have never been a fan of Tom Cruise, and this was even before the whole couch-jumping/cradle-robbing debacle of 2005. In every single performance I've seen him in, he is always, always Tom Cruise, the tightly wound, eye-narrowing male pinup with the affected stammer and Grinch-like smile. For the record, I don't mind actors who are just good at being themselves and/or an established persona. What chafes me is when an actor is showered with praise for versatility that he has yet to show. If everyone admitted that Cruise is always Cruise, that would be one thing, but the fact that he is hailed as the Last Great Movie Star and that his career has lasted longer than Paul Newman's? Good grumble fodder (for me, at least). But I have to hand it to Anderson, he takes Cruise's familiar brash persona (Cruise is 52 now, by the way, isn't he's getting a little long in the tooth to play brash?) and turns it on its head. Not that it's that big a deal, because nearly everyone in Magnolia turns in achingly powerful performances.
So…. Magnolia. It's Anderson's favorite of all his films. Pretty remarkable given his career, so what the heck is it about, anyway?
There isn't a plot in the strictest sense, for Anderson is more concerned with tackling themes than story. Boasting an impressive cast of some of the brightest and/or underrated actors working, Magnolia is a freeway of speeding, out-of-control stories that collide in shocking, terrible, sometimes funny ways. They involve a dying millionaire Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who, with the help of his gentle nurse Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) attempts to reach out to his estranged son, and Earl's younger, extremely high strung wife Linda (Julianne Moore), who harbors secrets that threaten to crack her fragile sanity. Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall) is an aging host of a children's quiz show with an estranged adult daughter of his own. Young Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), a champion contestant on Gator's quiz show, has a brutish stage father (Michael Bowen) to contend with. Poor Stanley could very well have a future like Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former contestant on Gator's show who is a miserable salesman who grapples with the fact that he peaked before puberty.
I've only just scratched the surface, of course. It would take far too long to cover the bases involving other characters and how interconnected they turn out to be. Through less than 24 fevered hours, amidst crimes, breakdowns, a game show episode from Hell, revelations, behavior ranging from loathsome to tender, it is as Flanery O'Connor said, everything that rises must converge. Come to think of it, with the deeply flawed characters and vaguely biblical themes, I have to wonder if Anderson was influenced in some way by O'Connor's classic works.
Yet picking Magnolia apart is equivalent to a full-time job; it's more like a rose, in that it reveals its surprising number of layers as it slowly blossoms. What is so incredible about Magnolia is that it has sections that feel like one long, breathless climax. The score is mostly a dizzying crescendo that seems to never end, as character's, well, characters are brought to light.
While we're on the subject of Magnolia's soundtrack, it consists primarily of tracks by indie music queen Aimee Mann. Once the lead singer of the cheesy '80s pop group 'til Tuesday, Mann has matured into a respected artist, and she brings an array of memorably introspective songs. One of the highlights of Magnolia is a haunting montage of each of the main characters singing a verse of the somber "Wise Up". It brought to mind the "Isn't it Romantic" number from the 1932 musical Love Me Tonight, only reflected in a melancholy mirror.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: "Wise Up" also appeared on the soundtrack to, of all things, Jerry Maguire. And, yes, Cruise does sing a verse.
None of the actors step wrong in Magnolia, not a one. The recently, dearly departed Hoffman is sweetly emotional as a somewhat naive man trying to do the right thing. Cruise is the embodiment of entitled misogyny as a motivational speaker who basically preaches the value of creeping, "negging", and Nice Guy Syndrome. His unhinged mannerisms are nothing short of prescient of his 2005 meltdown (his interview in Magnolia is similar to his infamous one with Matt Lauer). Macy, once again showing why he's Hollywood's favorite choice to play pathetic losers, is at once ridiculous and pitiable, as a man latently bitter at his misspent youth and his unremarkable adulthood, and it's reflected in his desperate smiles, outdated wardrobe, and obviously dyed hair. But Moore's devastating turn as a guilt-ridden trophy wife coming apart at the seams is the one that stuck with me the most. Her Linda has the self-awareness and inner goodness to feel remorse over marrying a man for his money, falling in love with him after the fact, and her escalating neurosis is so real because most of us have felt uncontrollable pangs of conscience. Even more distressing? She's actually one of the most morally upright characters in the movie, but she doesn't realize that, and probably never will.
Guilt is easily the most prominent theme that Anderson addresses in Magnolia, and you know what? Good for him. Society doesn't place much credence on guilt; we're told to "just get over it", "suck it up", or, God forbid, "YOLO". If you don't believe me, ask yourselves this: when was the last time a public figure apologized in earnest and addressed their latest screw-up? When was the last time someone, anyone, apologized to you? It's rare, isn't it? We aren't allowed to ruminate, even a little, over our mistakes, no matter how bad. We're just expected to keep going on with our lives. You know who draws blood and keeps going, no matter what? Sharks. As humans, we're supposed to be better than that. Robards (who died just one year after Magnolia's release), as the dying millionaire, gives a speech that better encapsulates my thoughts. Playing an old man facing death and who has his share of regrets, he knows what he's talking about. Here is the speech, retrieved from IMDb:
The goddamn regret. The goddamn regret! Oh, and I'll die. Now I'll die, and I'll tell you what... the biggest regret of my life... I let my love go. What did I do? I'm sixty-five years old. And I'm ashamed. A million years ago... the fucking regret and guilt, these things, don't ever let anyone ever say to you you shouldn't regret anything. Don't do that. Don't! You regret what you fucking want! Use that. Use that. Use that regret for anything, any way you want. You can use it, OK? Oh, God. This is a long way to go with no punch. A little moral story, I say... Love. Love. Love. This fucking life... oh, it's so fucking hard. So long. Life ain't short, it's long. It's long, goddamn it. Goddamn. What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? Phil. Phil, help me. What did I do?
I decided not discuss Magnolia's infamous ending. One, it might be an unnecessary spoiler for anyone who hasn't seen it, and, two, there's nothing I can say about it that hasn't been said already.