Where do I even start? I guess by saying that this movie would go on my short list of “perfect” films. Magnolia, from 1999, is a fucking masterpiece – it’s quite a magic trick Paul Thomas Anderson pulls off here. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it. It’s structure and use of music is completely (at least in my 50 plus years of obsessively watching movies) unique, but more on that in a minute.
From a practical standpoint, it’s probably an hour too long – but I’m not sure what you’d cut, ‘cuz there’s definitely no filler. It builds to an absolute fever pitch by ninety minutes in and then just keeps one-upping itself for another ninety. You think that each character’s completely devastating personal crisis can’t possibly get any more intense and yet the film just continues to ratchet each one up to another level of psychic pain, brought on by loneliness, regret, and damage from the past that seemingly can never be undone. It’s gloriously unbearable; I actually felt giddy in spots, like the way you get when you’re driving your car entirely too fast for safety and then just keep increasing the speed. There’s a palpable sense of danger yet it’s also fun…
On a stylistic level, Anderson pulls off a device throughout the entire film that shouldn’t work but somehow does. First, he introduces all the characters in a montage (and there’s a lot of them) before the story even gets started, set against Aimee Mann plaintively singing Harry Nillson’s “One.” This is after the film opens with a short documentary narrated by Ricky Jay on “coincidences.” WTF? you may be thinking, and yet this all somehow works, immediately drawing you in. You just can’t stop watching.
But the device I was really struck by is this: the entire film follows multiple storylines of broken characters in very short cuts edited together that somehow flows as if this is how all stories are told. But the genius is that all of this jumping back and forth from multiple stories with quick edits is scored with single, extended musical pieces, as if they are really just one long scene. Jon Brion did the music and it captures just the right tone of melancholy and tragedy. Anderson underscores the device by mixing the music really loud – something that is virtually never done in film. At times the music is actually louder than the dialogue, yet it works!
And finally, a brief note about the actors: William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards (playing a man dying of cancer while he really was dying of cancer), John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, and, last but not least, in possibly the greatest performance of his career – Tom Cruise. All give full out, award winning performances.
Best lines: “The book says we may be through with the past but the past isn’t through with us,” and “I really do have love to give, I just don’t know where to put it.”
Oh, did I mention that Paul Thomas Anderson was 28 years old when he wrote and directed it?
I don’t use this word often, but I think it’s warranted here: Genius!