Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Movie Review: Magnolia (1999)


A sprawling epic of interrelated human melodramas, Magnolia maintains interest for most of its astounding 188 minutes of running time, thanks to an engaging cast and mounting certainty that something most unusual will happen to everyone involved.

Television magnate Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is bed-ridden and close to death. Looking after him is well-meaning nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Earl's much younger wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is racked with guilt: she only married him for the money, but now that Earl is dying, she does not  want to inherit his fortune. Parma discovers that Earl's long-lost son is none other than Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), an obnoxious relationship self-help guru and author of Seduce And Destroy, a book guiding men to dominate women for the sole purpose of sex.

One of the longest running television programs produced by Earl is the quiz show What Do Kids Know?, hosted by the veteran Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Gator has just learned that he has terminal cancer, and devastated by the guilt of all the sins in his life, is struggling to host the latest episode of the show. One of the contestants is boy genius Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), being mercilessly pushed by his father, who sees in Stanley an opportunity to get rich. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) was a star of What Do Kids Know? a generation earlier. His winnings from the show were squandered by his parents, and Donnie is now a broken man, having lost most of his intelligence when he was struck by lightning.

Claudia (Melora Walters) is Jimmy Gator's daughter. Estranged from her father and addicted to drugs and very loud music, Claudia meets police officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who is lonely and deeply religious but otherwise polite and considerate. They have a most awkward first date, disrupted by Claudia's insecurities.

After the success of Boogie Nights (1997), director Paul Thomas Anderson was given free rein. He wrote and directed Magnolia, and what he lacked in discipline he more than made up for in ambition. Magnolia runs on the unconstrained adrenaline of its overcharged characters. There are few subtle displays of emotion: all the knobs are turned to maximum expression, and the actors bite greedily into the meaty license to just let loose.

Cruise is quite memorable as T. J. Mackey, an intolerable self-help snake oil artist on hyperdrive, preaching to men about the need to reclaim their masculinity and dominate women in the most brazen terms. Of course Mackey is using all the bombast to get back at his father, but this does not make him any less fascinating to watch. Moore, Robards (in his final role), Walters, Hall and Macy do their own share of furniture chewing, and most scenes in Magnolia feature someone erupting, hissing, shouting, crying or collapsing.

Several themes tie all the stories of Magnolia together, the most prominent being abandonment, abuse, disappointment and betrayal. The nurse Parma and the police officer Kurring are the least damaged and most positive forces for good in the movie. All the other characters are struggling, often with limited success, against evil intentions, bleak childhoods, substances controlling their actions, and grand disillusionment with the way life turned out.

The ending is more weird than successful. The film threatens to elegantly come together, but instead takes a trip to an outlandish final 20 minutes that, while mystifying, throws away a lot of the good work that was constructed so carefully. While Magnolia falls short of delivering the sweetest smell, it remains an impressive bouquet.






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