Movie Review: Magnolia

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On an evening in California, a series of interconnected people struggle with their lives.

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Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999

Hoo, boy. Time to sort this plot out. This movie is sort of a collection of vignettes told chronologically, one of those intersecting stories movies (a better example of the genre) in which a variety of Serious White Actors play Serious Characters with Serious Monologues across the San Fernando Valley in one rainy night. After being informed of three stories about strange coincidences, we start to meet our main cast of characters: an old, dying man named Earl (Jason Robards), unbeknownst to his manic drug addicted wife Linda (Julianne Moore), is looking for his misogynistic “inspirational speaker” son Frank “TJ” Mackey (Tom Cruise). Meanwhile Officer John C. Reilly investigates a series of disturbances and meets the drug addicted Claudia (Melora Walters), whose dying father, celebrity Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), hosts a kids’ game show. Contestant Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) struggles to live up to his showbiz dad’s expectations. Former contestant Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) wants the money to get braces, but he’s finding it hard to cash in on his fame now that he’s all grown up.

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Thought I recognise the talent involved in making this movie, I can’t say I liked it very much. I think the biggest problem I had with this movie was my failure to connect with a number of characters, feeling no more than a vague irritation at them. It happened most often when I was watching John C. Reilly’s bumbling cop (unless Claudia, who I genuinely felt for, was in the scene with him), William H. Macy’s washed-up former child star, and Julianne Moore’s woman on the verge. It was interesting to see Tom Cruise in probably his last actual role, though one could theorise there’s an awful lot of Tom Cruise’s force of personality in Frank. He’s an intriguing example of an early Pick-Up Artist, a horrendously sexy and disturbing man with bad hair and daddy issues. Philip Seymour Hoffman is surprisingly good in a subdued role as Earl’s nurse; his empathy feels very genuine. Child genius Stanley’s storyline genuinely upset me, and I was most interested in what happened to him, which sadly wasn’t much. There wasn’t a lot of payoff there, though he, like everyone else, did get a decent monologue.

This movie should be renamed “monologues”. I’ve never seen so many monologues in one movie before in my life. No wonder so many famous actors were drawn to it; they could show reels from it for years to come. There is a very light touch in the balancing act between the scenes, with the exception of John C. Reilly’s scenes, which often feel just a bit too long. The musical montages are neat, including the weird moment where everyone sings along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”; in the ethereal atmosphere of the movie, it fits better than the much stranger climactic event. I’m not sure what the point of this movie is, even though John C. Reilly seems to basically tell us what it’s supposed to be about at one point. There are a few moments of genuine pathos, but at other times it wanted me to feel sympathy for characters I could not like if I tried. I just didn’t connect with it, I guess.

Magnolia on IMDb

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