PSA: Magnolia (1999), or You Can’t Save Me If You Can’t Save Yourself

31 03 2009

Well, it’s the end of my third month here at the ol’ Cinematronica project. I’ve been doing a review every single day for the past 90 days, and I haven’t lost my head yet. Hopefully I don’t go off the deep end at any point in time and kill all the Cinematronica employees in a flurry of rage (admittedly, I am the only employee, but I would still have to be bat-shit crazy to do such a thing). Now, I haven’t hit the big 100 milestone yet, and for that, I’ll do something else really nice for myself, but 90 is still a lot, and I wanted a little treat, so there. Today is an impromptu PSA about a movie that was a gateway to the finer things in cinema for me. Magnolia is a little-seen masterpiece by Paul Thomas Anderson that features one of the best ensemble casts that I have ever seen, some of the best cinematography I have witnessed in the latter part of the 20’th century, and one of the most original plots to come out of America in quite some time. Some people feel it to be pretensious and overly ponderous, but who cares? Unless it’s trying to steal your credit card numbers, I don’t see a problem with a pretentious movie.

It’s really quite plot-heavy. I won’t divulge too much, as this film has enough plot to choke a regular film, but its basic outline is similar to that of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It all takes place during one day in San Fernando Valley, California, and it follows the entwined lives of 9 different people. All of them in some way are connected, and in some way all of them are wounded and confused about life. There is the police officer, Jim, who is a stickler for the rules and a very religious man, but who is also very lonely. There is the author of a how-to-pick-up-chicks book, Frank T.J. Mackey, who seems ever-so-confident but hides his personal life from the world. There is Donnie Smith, a former quiz kid on a game show in the 60’s who has fallen on hard times. There is Claudia, a psychologically disturbed woman with a coke problem and a self-loathing personality. There are other people and other stories, and they are all connected in some strange way. It’s a portrait of life, how we are connected sometimes by tenuous threads, and how those threads may at times be the only hope of our redemption and our salvation.

I love every frame of Magnolia. There is something special about this film, as if Paul Thomas Anderson knew that there would never be another one like this in the history of cinema. It is lovingly rendered from beginning to end. Anderson and his DP Robert Elswit are in total command of the scenes, even the unimaginably difficult long takes that are interspersed throughout this mammoth film. It is certainly a movie for an admirer of the craft, and for those who aren’t, it sure does look pretty. Anderson once said that Magnolia would be the best movie he would ever make. So far, although he has yet to make a film that did not deeply resonate with me, I have to wholeheartedly agree.

The cast is an amazing ensemble. Tom Cruise turns off his emotional blinders for a moment and actually becomes a very inhabitable character as Frank T.J. Mackey, the womanizer and chauvinist. I can’t thank him enough for turning in one good performance before he turned into a total psych ward patient in front of the entire world. William H. Macy plays Donnie Smith, the former child genius who is trying to deal with his inner demons. He is pathetic but immensely sympathetic, and he exists very seamlessly in this world with little pity. Melora Walters plays Claudia to extreme dramatic effect. Here, she looks like a skinny puppy lost in a filthy Californian slum, and she is suspicious of everyone, including herself. I enjoyed her immensely, but the real standout is John C. Reilly, who plays Jim the police officer. He is a great dramatic player, the world seems to forget now that he is a renowned comedic actor. Here, he plays the often clueless but extremely lovable cop with no frills. He has some of the best lines in this film, and he can make you laugh and cry within the same scene. You’ll find yourself rooting for him to find happiness even as the city goes mad around him.

It’s a wonderful plot, full of spellbinding characters who are fleshed out as well as you or I. The cast is one of the best this generation has to offer, bar none. And Paul Thomas Anderson is a director to watch intently, because there is no doubt that he has what it takes to make a great film each and every time. It was one of the first contemporary artistic films I had yet seen in my teenage years, and it left a huge impression on me. I love Magnolia immensely, and give it the full 10 perhaps-pretentious movies out of 10. Go watch it and grow as a lover of the medium!

Tomorrow we peer into The 25th Hour!