The Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective Part 3: Magnolia

The Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective continues! Last time, we took a look at the film that put Paul Thomas Anderson on the map: the ambitious, epicly scoped Boogie Nights. Today, however, we see Anderson pushing the limits of ambition AND scope in his follow-up piece, 1999’s Magnolia.

It must also be made absolutely clear that it’s impossible to discuss Magnolia without getting into serious detail on the character arcs and the insane finale. So be warned: There are major, MAJOR spoilers.

Also, unlike most of my retrospectives, instead of just showing a bunch of pictures from the movie, I’m going to be employing clips from the film. So make sure your internet connection is good enough to buffer some YouTube videos, if you want the full experience. Not required, but definitely a plus!

With that being said, it’s time to analyze the web of coincidences that is Magnolia.

“It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just ‘something that happened.’ This cannot be ‘one of those things’… This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. Ohh. These strange things happen all the time.”

People, critics especially, like to argue on whether there’s a difference between the “favorite” and the “best”. I normally belong in the balanced category: I usually pick a favorite movie of mine because I think it is the best. But there are, of course, exceptions to this rule that I’ve created for myself, and the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson is so wildly varied and each film feels so different from the last one that I can’t just say which Anderson film is the “best”.

That being said, I think Magnolia is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “best” movie. However, it’s not my “favorite” Paul Thomas Anderson movie (We’ll get more on that one later in the retrospective). I feel like I have to categorize each Anderson film in its own section. Hard Eight is his “worst” movie (Well, “worst” is too harsh because it’s still good; “least-favorite” could work too), while Boogie Nights is his most “fun, entertaining” movie. You get the idea.

But I feel like Magnolia is his “best” movie (so far; there’s still a chance for The Master to take that prize). The reason being that this is the film in which Anderson employs all of his signature techniques and themes into one operatic magnum opus. It’s his biggest film, it’s his most ambitious film, it’s populated with some of his most well-written characters, and it’s his most vivacious. It is also his most mysterious, and the one that seems to be his most metaphorical, especially in regards to its crazy, practically improbable finale. But we’ll get to that later…

A usual plot synopsis of Magnolia is impossible considering the berth of characters and storylines that are built into the film. So here’s a more simplified version: A group of seemingly unrelated lives (Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly, Phillip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Jason Robards, Melora Walters, Jeremy Blackman, and many more) coincide with one another during one, single 24-hour period in Los Angeles.

If you think about it, many other films have done the “intertwined lives” plot (Crash, Traffic, Pulp Fiction, the majority of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work) but none have done it the way Paul Thomas Anderson does it in Magnolia. Whereas most of these types of movies are structured by telling all of one story, then all of another, and repeating the process until the bigger picture is revealed, Magnolia is the exact opposite because it always exists in the big picture. It switches from story to story relentlessly, frequently, and sporadically in no particular order or pattern.

There is really no clear-cut protagonist in Magnolia. When that happens in movies, it usually means that it’s hard for an emotional connection to be made since there’s no emotional “center” to latch onto. But that’s not the case in Magnolia. There is an emotional center because the connective tissue that ties these stories together is more than superficial. While there are many different storylines, almost all of them tell the same kind of story with the same themes in mind. I’ll get more in-depth on this aspect later when we get to the theme discussion.

Like every Paul Thomas Anderson film, the performances are fantastic. All of them. Not only does it feature one of Tom Cruise’s most memorable roles as sexual deviant Frank TJ Mackey, but I personally think that it features the greatest John C. Reilly performance ever. Most mainstream audiences see Reilly as “that guy from Step Brothers“, and many of them are unfortunately unaware that he’s so much more than that, especially as a dramatic actor. And of all the countless roles he’s done, his performance as Officer Jim Kurring is beautifully executed. He’s shy without being juvenile, soft-spoken without being a total wimp, and heart-breakingly sad without being overly depressing to watch. He’s so breathtakingly sympathetic and wonderful to watch, and he displays the character’s inner demons without having to be brooding or depressed. I honestly couldn’t think of another person to play him. It’s the best display of John C. Reilly’s gifts as an actor, and he turns what could’ve been a borderline depressing character into something warm and wonderful to watch.

Also on display is Paul Thomas Anderson’s love of the long-takes. Here, they’re less playful than they were in Boogie Nights, but they’re able to create a certain anxiety to the film. Take, for example, the scene in which Stanley Spector, boy-genius extraordinaire, is being whisked away into the television studio to prepare for a game-show.

The second he enters the studio, the camera circles around him and continues to follow him as he’s being led by an assistant and his father. The camera circles again in the hallway as his father separates from his son to go to the green room where all the parents of the contestants are watching. The camera careens and swerves ever so slightly, but just enough to feel dizzying as it moves through the turns of the hallways. The camera circles again to follow another assisstant simply moving from one room to the next. As its following her, she moves to another room and you can see Stanley and the other assisstant walking through the hall at the end of the first one. The camera follows them into the elevator, and waits inside with them as Stanley asks about the TV station’s meteorology department. The elevator opens and the camera follows them out to the next hallway. Another assisstant of some sort passes by them and the camera decides to follow her, circling again to face her back. The shot finally cuts.

Traditionally shot, this would’ve just been a normal scene in which characters go from point A to point B. Shot in one take while switching perspectives and gliding along the hallways, however, it ends up evoking the chaotic nature of the TV station. It also speaks directly to the theme of connections as it seamlessly switches perspectives in order to go from one character to the next. Aside from that, however, most of the long-takes in Magnolia aren’t as showy as they were in Boogie Nights, instead being used for dialogue sequences as characters speak almost the entirety of a monologue in a single take.

The other technique returning from Boogie Nights, the one that continually evolves all throughout Anderson’s work, is the audiovisual filmmaking. In my Boogie Nights piece, I talked in length about the use of the firecrackers in the drug-dealer scene to create tension, while only briefly mentioning the use of the soundtrack in the film. In Magnolia, however, the music is essential.

Magnolia is a walloping three hours, but it never ever feels that long. If anything the first two hours go by so smoothly they feel like the first hour of most movies, while it’s only the final hour that seems to slow things down. The incredibly propulsive pacing is thanks in large part to Jon Brion’s score. Throughout the first two hours of the film, especially while the game show is rolling, the score is constant. It almost feels like the movie’s heartbeat. A single track will continue on even when a scene ends and moves on, acting almost like a sort of connective tissue that ties everything together.

Then, the final hour comes along and it’s mostly absent of music, with the exception of a montage set to Aimee Mann’s Wise Up. We’ve seen this type of scene before. Where the movie cuts between all the characters going through their own troubles while being set to a sad song with appropriately fitting lyrics. But much like what Anderson did with the firecrackers in Boogie Nights, in this scene, he takes something that is usually only audio in nature, and melds it with the visual to create something both unique and affecting. Rather than just having the montage being set to the song Wise Up, instead all of the characters sing along, further establishing their ethereal connection.

The characters become so connected, that a lot of people still consider the main theme of the film to be that of coincidence and chance. I don’t see that to be the case. Coincidence is just a mechanic used to connect these different stories. But the stories are also being connected by the film’s true theme. I said I’d get back to this point, so here it is…

While there are numerous storylines to keep track of in Magnolia, they involve you emotionally because they’re all variations of the same theme. Hell, they’re all almost the same story. The story of children being abused by their parents. Of that pain and hurt persisting over generations. And of a simple act of kindness being able to change everything. Yup, it’s that theme again. As was also demonstrated in Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, fathers and father-figures make-up the central-relationships in the film. But in Magnolia, they aren’t just a primary relationship, they’re also the catalyst for all the heavy drama in the film.

Melora Walters’s Claudia Gator was sexually-assaulted by her father Jimmy Gator played by Phillip Baker Hall, who comes to tell his now crack-addicted daughter that he’s dying of cancer only to be shunned by her. Jimmy is also the host of the game-show that Stanley Spector is participating in. Stanley, himself, is only in the game show because his father wants the winnings, and he will act openly hostile to Stanley if he screws up even a little bit. This relationship is a parallel to William H. Macy’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, who won the show when he was a boy, is now grown up with all the money taken away by his father, and is now broke with no job. Speaking of the game-show, it’s produced by Earl Partridge, who, much like the show’s host Jimmy, is also dying of cancer and has also done something heinous to his child. In his case, he abandoned his son and wife who suffered from the same disease. His son grew up to be the expert womanizer Frank TJ Mackey played by Tom Cruise, while his trophy wife played by Julianne Moore is addicted to her husband’s pills after realizing that she might actually love him.

All of these characters have been affected by their fathers/their children, or in the case of Mrs. Partridge, the father-figure (Though you can make the assumption that she had daddy-issues too). It’s not only what ends up defining them and shaping who they have or will become, it’s also what connects them all in the intertwining structure, and gives the film that emotional center.

Plus, it’s worth noting that Anderson’s second-favorite theme–that of loneliness and alienation–are in play, actually as a result of the father-figures theme. For example, there are only two genuinely good characters in the film: Nurse Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). While Phil doesn’t seem to have any demons, he does feel the need to help Earl Partridge confront his own demons by helping him find his son Frank. Does he feel the need to make sure his patients never die alone? Does this suggest at some personal demons in which he was unable to fulfill another dying patient’s wish?

And what of Jim? Jim seems to want to help out Claudia and make sure she isn’t alone, but it also seems to be in service of his own lonesomeness. Whenever we do see him in private, he stays at home only to pray by himself, and when he’s in his car, he basically just talks to an imaginary person on the passenger seat. He actually feels like a distant cousin to Barry Egan, the protagonist of Anderson’s next film Punch-Drunk Love (Which we’ll discuss in the next installment). He’s sad because he’s alone, he’s alone because he’s awkward, he’s awkward because he’s shy, he’s shy because he has too muh kindness in his heart.

In a way, this is the Paul Thomas Anderson-iest film that Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made. All of the themes are on display, and it’s all executed in his most operatic and epically scoped style imaginable. And what’s more, he decides to tie everything together with an incredible, surreal, awe-inducing finale that also counts as one of the greatest uses of the deus ex machina ever conceived.

As each of the characters are dealing with their own personal crises, one single unifying event brings them all either to salvation or at the very least a second chance at things. This is the scene where all of a sudden, frogs literally rain from the sky, and the storm ends up affecting each character in different ways. Jimmy Gator, as he’s about to commit suicide, is instead knocked unconscious by a frog that falls through a sun-light, Claudia ends up reuniting with her mother, Donnie is saved by Officer Kurring who gives him a second chance to return the money he stole, and Earl Partridge is able to wake up for one last breath to see that his son has found him. The only character that isn’t perplexed by the frog-storm is Stanley Spector, who sits alone in his oasis of books in the school library while he looks out the window and simply says, “This is happening. This is something that happens.”

Most everyone debated the ending when it came out, arguing whether it was too out of place, or if there’s any sort of hidden meaning behind it, even though it’s very obvious considering the references to Exodus 8:2 in the Bible in which God unleashes a plague of frogs on the populace of Egypt. But never mind the Biblical connections, even though they are beautifully implied. What’s important is that these characters were given their second chance, and the means in which they are given that chance elevate their situations into that further realm of destiny and fate that the film cleverly disguises as coincidence and chance.

Magnolia is very much a masterpiece. A divisive masterpiece to be sure, and not nearly as accessible as Boogie Nights was, but it’s so fierce in its evocation of emotions and the way that each scene strives to give you a certain feel whether it be through camerawork or sound. It’s a master-class with all the best sorts of elements: inventive filmmaking, even better writing, and a perfect ensemble cast. And that’s why Magnolia is, in my eyes, the “best” film that Paul Thomas Anderson has made.

So you’d think that Anderson couldn’t top himself on this one. With such an ambitious, mammoth-sized production, you’d think that he wouldn’t be able to do something else like it. And indeed, Paul Thomas Anderson seemed to believe that too. So he decided to go in the opposite direction and try something entirely new. Something you wouldn’t expect the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia to do. Something like, oh I dunno, a surrealist romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler.

Next time, we’ll discuss the gorgeously bizarre Punch-Drunk Love, and see whether the tricky shift in style pays off.

That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.

See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to–No! NO! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!!

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