Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia tells the stories of several characters including a self-help guru, a loner cop, a quiz show host, a former child genius, a current child genius, a male nurse and a dying father looking for his long lost son.
Magnolia is very much a character driven piece and, even though there are more than enough outrageous occurrences to be found, is mainly noticeable for the actors’ performances and the development of their characters. Very early on, a whole barrage of characters is thrown at us at a breakneck pace, introducing the main characters left, right and centre. While it may initially appear that it will be a challenge to keep track of them all (which is partly the case as by the end, I still didn’t know half their names!), the pacing soon slows down as the individual characters come in to focus.
As a bona fide ensemble piece, there are plenty of powerful, emotionally heavy performances to be found. Perhaps most prominent is Tom Cruise, who is positively manic and outrageous as Frank T. J. Mackey, a . . . unique . . . character who hosts seminars on teaching men how to take what they want and to . . . conquer . . . women. A truly powerhouse performance, appearing as if he’s high on sugar and a few kilos of cocaine, Cruise is positively mesmerising and full of life, while also having plenty of emotionally powerful scenes towards the end that are full of character depth. Cruise displays a wide range in Magnolia and is certainly one of his most memorable roles.
Elsewhere, the wonderful Julianne Moore is note perfect (as you can expect) as she goes through the emotional ringer as her husband slowly dies. Her character arc is one of the more interesting ones as she reveals that she married the dying Earl Partridge simply because she wanted a sugar daddy but ended up falling in love with him, despising herself for the actions she has taken. William H. Macy also has a unique role as former child genius Donnie Smith, though I found his character motivations a bit difficult to fathom, Phillip Baker Hall gives plenty of emotionally powerful scenes as ailing quiz show host Jimmy Gator and Jeremy Blackman is fascinating as the child prodigy who suffers through pushy stage parents and unfeeling adults, slowly losing his mind and getting angry at the people around him.
Paul Thomas Anderson successfully gets a whole host of three-dimensional, affecting performances from his actors and the ensemble cast is something to behold. His direction is also effective, using long tracking shots to switch from character to character and knowing when to utilise close ups during the emotionally heavy moments.
As mentioned before, there are plenty of wild, outrageous moments in Magnolia that go alongside the tender, emotional scenes including an early scene where a suicide turns into a murder and an insane scene involving several frogs. It’s good to see this level of imagination and outrageousness; it keeps things interesting and injects a certain energy to proceedings.
I found the film to strangely be aesthetically similar to Requiem for a Dream, given its several delirium-induced moments and scenes that take place during nightmarish TV shows and infomercials. The score is also similar in places and carries that same bleakness and darkness.
The film’s generous runtime can be a bit of an issue though – Anderson himself has called it “unmerciful”, remarking that he could very well have cut a few story threads out. I also found it a little hard to figure out just what message the film was trying to put across; I understand that it’s supposed to be about living with the actions that we’ve made as well as forgiveness and whatnot but the themes didn’t really hit home for me.
Sometimes manic and delirious, sometimes thoughtful and affecting, Magnolia is a powerful film supported by unique characters, solid writing/directing and superb performances.
★ ★ ★ ★