Art of Momentum: On “Magnolia” (1999) by Paul Thomas Anderson

A shot of Tom Cruise from "Magnolia" by Paul Thomas Anderson

The central conceit of any movie can be flawed and flimsy but justify itself within its execution. For instance, media based upon the themes of the Book of Job are innumerable, from Kafka’s The Trial, to the Coens’s A Serious Man to even Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. This doesn’t make the movies equal in their technical expertise. A movie’s quality just can’t be equated from its elevator pitch – premises are dangerous, as they can often cause the artist to become fixated on the unimportant qualities of their content. In fact, artists are often uncertain of why their output is good at all and are unable to replicate previous quality due to drawing only false conclusions. An artist’s self-opinion is very rarely trustable, as it can be influenced by third parties with different agendas, from sycophantic agents to frothing pundits and mega-fan bros.

In no movie is this as demonstrable as in Magnolia, probably the wackiest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography. The off-kilter concept arose from the film being his follow-up to Boogie Nights, a critical and commercial success that allowed Anderson to do something “he could never do again”. This carte-blanche historically has either made an artist swell under the weight of their own ego or rise to the challenge. Magnolia seems to be a conflux of the two – in some ways its framing device and the reason for it is misguided and simplistic, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s technical execution rises to the challenge regardless in elevating that conceit. And then, the movie flies from his hands like a slick bar of soap, and that’s because he refuses to let go of his metaphysical rambling. What it results in is a huge mess, a clean break from all the good-will he had managed to engender.

Magnolia is about the lives of a handful of vaguely connected strangers, all of whom are having in one way or another the most emotionally intense day of their lives. We have a typically excessive ensemble of critical darlings and character actors, from the eternally creased William H Macy to the perennially loud Tom Cruise, from the furious crimson face of Philip Seymour Hoffman oozing fragility to the ridiculous earnestness of John C Reilly, but the real stand-out is the frayed edges of Julianne Moore, barely able to conceal the cracks in her character’s facade. Macy plays a former quiz-kid come deplorable and bankrupt sleazebag, Cruise a pick-up artist with a dark and hidden past, Hoffman the hospice nurse for a dying and cantankerous Jason Robards. All of them are linked by traumas and coincidence, rambling around California screaming the worst things that ever happened to them at anyone who listens, orbiting around a game-show where a team of children play a Jeopardy-esque quiz against a team of adults. Plenty of absurd human pathos is found in these whacked-out screwballs, who while still feeling distinctly hyperreal occasionally have interesting insecurities or contradictions that you might see in yourself, or others. And despite most of them being deplorable – a favourite touch, apparently, for Paul Thomas Anderson – they have moments of completely sympathetic doubt and vulnerability.

The movie opens, however, with a contrived infomercial about the nature of coincidence, and how on a large enough scale of time and population bizarre million-to-one chances are almost inevitable. It uses a semi-factual account of a man who jumped from a roof but was shot through a window by a shotgun on his way down. The shooter was determined to have committed manslaughter. The movie adds a fictive dash in that the jumper is the shooter’s son, tired of the constant waving around of said shotgun. All of that is explained to us by a Deadpool self-aware narrator voiced by stage-magician Ricky Jay. By and large this is the weakest element of the movie and sounds like the ramblings of a drunk Joe Rogan. In effect this is essentially Littlewood’s Law, the idea that due to the large-scale nature of the cosmos you can expect to experience a miracle at a rate of once per month. This is an incredibly fundamental theory in statistics, but the movie treats it like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The flaw is best expressed as “so what?” If Paul Thomas Anderson would like to throw his hat into the ring of philosophy he’s operating approximately a decade and a half previous to the contemporaries of philosophy when the movie was released. This mis-approximation of his own skill set hampers proceedings until we get to the meat and potatoes, the ones of character-work and diegesis, and interesting technique. It wraps the film’s otherwise compelling drama in a fabric of faux-intellectualism, like we’re meant to extract something much larger in connotation than what is presented to us. Given all the best faith a movie-going audience can give, the best idea he could be toying with is confirmation bias, or more appropriately Jung’s idea of Synchronicity. The characters may think these coincidences have innate value or meaning, when they are as meaningless as any other belching of energy from a stellar object. Either way, the ideas and their actual implementation are suspect, and probably sounded good in a rambling conversation during the process of screenwriting.

Despite this, the actual material content of it all is technically very well-executed. The camera-work is patient, allowing close-ups and tracking shots long enough to allow the actor to act. The score is for the most part good, and as a clear sign Paul Thomas Anderson was thinking about how to tie this thing together, the score is also not interrupted by a change of scene. It carries through as an agent of continuity, and the screenplay’s structure is built in a way that each vignette’s high and low moments occur in such an order that it feels like a constant elevation, the viewer pulled to increasing emotional highs and devastating lows. This is structuring at a very high level, which makes the ending even more of a let-down. The intermingling of the vignettes does reach a moment of absurdity when all the characters join in a rousing sing-along of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”, but if the movie has been allowed to weave its delirious spell on you then it might just touch something for a second.

However, Anderson could have done it with a little restraint. Tom Cruise is often built up as the golden boy of the film, but his performance feels quite disconnected. It oscillates between Cruise’s two opposed states of being, of wet-eyed sincerity and gurning his teeth out trying to simulate a single human reverie. This coupled with his comedic bravado in his seminar makes for quite typical Cruise faire. It is a shame because his character as written does have a few interesting contradictions, but in fairness to Tom it all feels a bit Psychological Damage 101. Generally, a movie should rely on its writing and performances to convey a character’s internal geography, but Paul Thomas Anderson in a sophomoric move has most of his characters outright state their deepest neuroses. One of two examples of this working to the film’s benefit is by the terrific Jason Robards delivering a raspy, dying monologue tinged with regret for a life of dalliances and defying his responsibilities, narrated over footage of other characters undergoing similar epiphanies. The second is Julianne Moore’s terrific sucking dick monologue, undoubtedly one of the best on screen about that topic. Her frenzy of guilt is haunting, and touches something a lot of people have at least been proximate to.

The struggles all the characters undergo are deliberately quite Abrahamic; they are the dichotomous battle of the better angels of their nature and the dirty, earthy temptations innate to their human condition. Some of them cave in while some of them rise above it, and those who have caved in live their lives shambling like empty ghosts. Jimmy Gator is the most blatant example; implied to have molested his daughter, and stricken with karmic cancer as a result. Biblical themes are commonplace to cinema, and this would have probably been a stronger thematic framework for the movie to rest on, especially considering the ending. As it stands, the movie takes an agnostic approach by integrating the theme of synchronicity – what if the Bible was an accounting of people undergoing similar inner turmoil, and the miracles were Littlewood’s Law mythologised over thousands of years? Is that why the ending appears so jarringly and interruptingly? Sin is painted in broad strokes as trauma begetting more trauma, spinning off into every direction like the petals of the eponymous magnolia. While once again this is interesting to talk about, the execution fails to go to necessary depth that sabotages that whole conceit. Ultimately it feels like a late addition that the movie was metamorphosed to accommodate.

The much talked about ending, where frogs rain from the sky and interrupt the drama, is like a sudden and nauseating application of the hand-brake. While the film is already long, it would have likely been more effective to diffuse from the emotional intensity more gradually. Ultimately you can only hypothesise, but Anderson takes a half-in approach to the abruptness of the climax. He attempts to tie up dangling threads after the large event, but any conclusion done that quickly is quite cack-handedly unsatisfying. Maybe if he was set on that sequence it would’ve been more effective to end it there and let us fill in the blanks. The rain of frogs either had to be the definitive moment, or the characters had to be resolved with a more considered amount of time.

While it may seem this is a very critical take, Magnolia is an enjoyable movie and better than 80% of mainstream cinema. The frustration is how closely to the precipice of great it edges to before losing its nerve. Movies like this are instructional, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s career has reached greater highs than this precisely because he came to realise his strengths and weaknesses – so in that way the film is valuable to his canon. As ensembles go, at least it’s better than fucking Love, Actually.

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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Galapagos, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

More from Marc Magill: On Stimulation: “Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance” by Godfrey Reggio (1982), Debase, Acquire: On Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011), The Little Flower – Discussing “Independent People” by Halldor Laxness

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