In the span of two movies, Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson has gone from promising newcomer to preening primadonna. Boogie Nights was a pretty good flick that wasn't nearly as good as the press said it was--but it wasn't bad. In case you haven't heard, Magnolia is a masterpiece--at least, I'm sure that Anderson would tell you so if he had the chance. Which means that, for an ordinary film-goer like myself, Magnolia is a chore to sit through, a film so choked with its own self-importance that it forgets the basic craft of filmmaking. I keep seeing it compared to Robert Altman's Short Cuts, which I haven't seen. I can certainly see a resemblance between the way that Anderson approaches filmmaking and the way that Altman approaches it, but I should warn the unwary that I hate most of Robert Altman's movies--even the "good" ones. Even Altman's best movies have an air of condescension about them and they are sloppy on the craft of filmmaking. Magnolia follows this model. But not only this model. Anderson, being a member of the current generation of "hot young turks," aspires to be Martin Scorsese, too. This is especially evident in the use of Aimee Mann's soundtrack. The mixture between the influences of Altman and Scorsese is uneasy at best. Perhaps I should back up a minute and describe what Magnolia is actually about...
Magnolia begins well enough with three sequences that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie except as a contrast. All three sequences demonstrate incidents of outrageous coincidences, each punctuated by the question of whether or not anything REALLY happens by coincidence, let alone coincidences as outrageous as those depicted. Each of these sequences holds a fascination over the audience and invites the audience to puzzle out the coincidences that link the various stories on display here. The film's thesis, as a whole, is that nothing is coincidental. The film then proceeds to follow a day in the lives of a disparate group of people: the good cop, the game show host, the sex guru, the dying man and his golddigging wife, the ex-quiz kid, and so on. Over the course of the film, patterns begin to emerge. Linkages are made. Nothing clubs the audience over the head, though, and one is left to one's own devices to provide a satisfying denoument, because the climax of the film is infuriating. Rather than write himself out of the corner into which he has backed himself, Anderson provides a non-sequitur. The ending of the movie provides a terrifying biblical event that seems to have wandered in from another movie. In the mainstream of the movie, this event has no meaning--it comes and it goes without much fanfare. "And yet it happened..." the movie informs us. Well, I for one don't buy it for a second.
A catalog of Magnolia's flaws should begin with its butt-numbing length. This is a film that could easily have clocked in at two hours and ten minutes rather than three hours and five minutes. When, at one point, all of the characters begin to sing along with the soundtrack for five minutes, I began to resent everything Anderson was throwing at us. This sequence adds nothing to the flow of the movie, but pads its length unmercifully. Other sequences could easily be trimmed or abreviated, as well. Anderson's use of the soundtrack bears comment, as well. He is attempting to use Aimee Mann's songs as a narrative bridge in the way Scorsese used music in, say, Goodfellas or Casino, but unlike Scorsese, he doesn't know when enough is enough, he doesn't know when a song begins to drone (the opening volley of Three Dog Knight's "One" is particularly hard to endure), and he doesn't know when his soundtrack is mixed so loud that it interferes with the movie. If Magnolia has any attraction whatsoever, it comes from its performances. All of the actors in the film, and there are a lot of actors, give finely balanced performances, even when they are given roles that provide ample opportunity to chew up the scenery. Not everyone is perfect, of course. Tom Cruise lets his performance get away from him a little, but his character is pretty flamboyant to start with. Julianne Moore spends the entire movie weeping, so it's hard to judge the intricacies of her performance. Perhaps the most troubling thing to me about Magnolia is its bleak view of how people relate to each other. All of the relationships in the movie are melodramatic in the extreme and most of them are unpleasant. I wouldn't mind this if the movie were shorter, but three hours is a long time to spend in the company of characters you don't like and don't give a damn about.
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