Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” still knocks me out even though it has been almost 25 years since it came out in 1999. Masterfully juggling many different narratives in the San Fernando Valley, California on one particularly eventful day, this cinematic symphony boldly attempts to give us a vivid human tapestry of misery, resentment, compassion, and forgiveness. It is often amazing how everything in this epic mostly remains under full control, even when the movie seems to be pushing itself too far with all those broad dramatic strokes. Somehow, it pulls off a truly elevating moment of catharsis for everyone in the end.
Like many other similar films—Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993) and Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (2004)—the movie focuses on many characters in a complex web of connections of which we are only partially aware. As each of their stories interconnects or resonates in one way or another, we naturally come to muse more on coincidence and inevitability in our life. We cannot help but wonder: Is this just a mere coincidence or actually a macabre joke of fate?
The central story element uniting these characters is a fictional popular TV quiz show, and the film’s first act details their respective connections with that production. We meet the longtime host of the TV quiz show, and then we gather how things have been messy in his professional and private life. We meet a dying man who is the producer of the TV quiz show, and then we get to know how his two family members have been tormented in their own way. We meet a smart little kid who has been the rising star of the TV quiz show, and then we observe the bitter parallels between this deeply unhappy boy and one pathetic loser who was once not so different from him many years ago. In addition, we also meet a good-hearted but lonely police officer who has longed for love and connection for some time. Then we watch him tentatively approaching a very troubled young woman after their accidental encounter.
As the movie shuffles among its numerous main characters, we notice how miserable many are. For instance, after learning that he has only a few months to live due to his terminal illness, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the aging host of the TV quiz show, attempts to have a kind of reconciliation with his estranged daughter, but Claudia (Melora Walters) is still angry and resentful due to his sexual abuse in the past. His unexpected visit only makes her quite furious and hysterical, while his wife Rose (Melinda Dillon) wonders more about what happened between them.
In the case of Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), another guilt-ridden dying figure involved with the TV quiz show, time is virtually running out for him second by second as he is on his deathbed. While his wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is coping with her growing guilt about neglecting her older husband for years, Earl wants to see the only son he abandoned a long time ago, and his caring nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is quite willing to help as much as he can. However, locating and then contacting Earl’s son is rather difficult, even though he has been well-known in the area under his changed name.
From his first scene, Earl’s son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), shows us what an ironic case study he is. As a sleazy but charismatic motivational speaker who “educates” his male clients on how to “seduce and conquer” women, he proudly embodies every toxic male influence from his father even though he still hates his father. We are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by every misogynistic aspect of his.
For that kid star of the TV quiz show, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), parental abuse is a serious matter to him right now. Constantly pushed by not only his greedy father but several others around him, he is expected to give the right answer every time on the TV quiz show. But he is now more tired and confused than ever, feeling more misery and loneliness. Stanley’s situation comes to function as a mirror image of Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who still clings to his glory days on the TV quiz show in the past, although that does not mean anything now. Donnie has a painfully sad scene when he clumsily confesses his longtime crush on the bartender of his frequent bar, and the recurring quote of the movie follows that: “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
It is utterly spellbinding how the movie gradually builds up the emotional intensity around these and other main characters during the middle of the story. While the fluidly dynamic camera work by cinematographer Robert Elswit immerses us more into the ongoing individual dramas, the efficient editing by Dylan Tichenor never gets us lost despite its busy shuffling of characters. The movie eventually culminates at the powerful dramatic point where many of its main characters go through an excruciating emotional meltdown.
Not long after, “Magnolia” throws a relatively subdued sequence where its main characters sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” individually. This initially looks like theatrical overkill, but it is another sublime moment, revealing how Anderson skillfully and confidently conducts every main character. We come to feel for them more than before.
Furthermore, a diverse array of performers in the film effectively gel together as Anderson’s dependable orchestra members. While Tom Cruise, deservedly Oscar-nominated for his fearless performance in this film, is surely the most prominent cast member in the bunch, he is also smoothly mixed into the ensemble. So are other notable cast members like Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, and John C. Reilly, whose cop character and Hoffman’s nurse character slowly emerge as the voice of kindness and compassion along the story.
In the case of that famous climactic moment, which I will not discuss here in detail, it’s so unexpected you may find it quite jarring compared to what has been realistically built up to that point. Nevertheless, this moment is an apt resolution after the overwhelmingly aching presentation of human pain and guilt for over two hours. After all, every part of the story desperately and harrowingly cries for any absolution or closure, and such an unbelievably biblical happening like that is probably the only possible way to resolve everything in the story, just like that odd ending of Anderson’s subsequent film “There Will Be Blood” seems to be the only logical narrative exit for its relentless story and lead character.
It is astonishing that “Magnolia” was only Anderson’s third feature film after “Hard Eight” (1996) and “Boogie Nights” (1997). As we all know, he has since risen much higher to become one of the most interesting filmmakers of our time. He was only 29 when he made “Magnolia,” and the movie is not only quite youthful and energetic in style but remarkably mature and insightful in substance.
“Magnolia” is one of a few precious movies that made me more sensitive. Like with “Short Cuts” or “Crash,” I am still grateful to “Magnolia” for providing a valuable emotional breakthrough about not only assessing movies but also empathizing with other people around me. Yes, as a guy who has a mild case of autism spectrum, I am not usually that good at interacting with people. But I learned a bit about people via “Magnolia,” and the compassionate message behind its story and characters reminds me that I still have more to learn.