The cinema of Robert Altman was marked by characters who snaked through their lives by insisting on moving forward instead of first reckoning with trauma that they had accrued or engendered. This may have first manifested in the original cut of M*A*S*H where members of the 4077 dispassionately play poker as the body of Ho-Jon, their one-time tent mascot who was drafted away to fight in the Korean War, is being driven away on a Jeep in the background. It’s definitely in the closing moments of The Long Goodbye as Phillip Marlowe has spent a whole film and his entire reputation betting on an outcome that most definitely didn’t materialize, and, well… now what? It’s in Nashville, where the sudden and violent death of a country superstar isn’t enough to bring the curtain down but, instead, puts the foot on the gas to such a degree that getting a clear picture in the rear view mirror is all but impossible. And so on, and so forth.
Over the course of 189 minutes, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia slowly rips that facade away, disallowing any movement forward until we get all squared up and wise up. For a film made by a man who was not yet thirty years of age, Magnolia is a profound, audacious, and deeply spiritual piece that plays honestly while still refusing to land in a place of dejected hopelessness and cynicism. If there was ever a film that unspooled like an opera as written and conducted by John Cassavetes, Magnolia is that film.
The film has a complex structure that’s as populous and busy as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The whole portrait is one of the Kingdom of Partridge, a fractured and dysfunctional empire that, from the root to the fruit, seeps poison and neglect instead of warmth and love. In the center of it all is Big Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), terminal and wasting away while his grief-stricken wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), reckons with her own faults and shortcomings. All the while, Earl’s benevolent hospice nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), tries desperately to contact Earl’s son, Jack (Tom Cruise), who is now running a misogyny-for-dollars empire under the name Frank T.J. Mackey. In the outer shell are the tales of Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), two mirror images of each other with a thirty year age cushion. The former, now a very sad and lonely man who has a lot of love to give, was once the reigning champion on a famous television game show and his parents exploited him and took him for every nickel he was worth. The latter is moving toward the very same fate in very slow motion thanks in no small part to his abusive lout of a father (Michael Bowen). The host of the aforementioned, Earl Partridge-produced game show, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), is dying of cancer and wants to make peace with his daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters), but she won’t speak to him and reacts explosively whenever he comes around. Keeping pace with the angel of death in the Partridge house is the film’s angel of healing, LAPD officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly, never better) who literally cries out to God and asks why he has been put here on this earth only to find redemption in the end by showing mercy and saving someone’s soul.
No doubt that this is some weighty material and as the party that was the 90’s roared to a close, audiences weren’t looking to trouble their minds with anything heavier than the looming Y2K issues. And it was doubly puzzling for those who showed up on the ad campaign’s reminder that this was “from the writer and director of boogie nights” and came to see a similar tale of rollicking fun that was festooned with highly energetic, cinematic arabesques. Well, they got the latter but there were also trapped in a three hour-plus catharsis that was fully committed to its Exodus 8:2 Easter egg that continually shows itself in the margins of the frame. So, it’s really not certain how much was taken to heart regarding Anderson’s pleas for letting go of past transgressions, flushing the soul of anger, charting a new life course based on love and understanding, or how we may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us.
But had some audience members been paying any attention, they’d have known that the themes and concerns in Magnolia were not new to Anderson as he had examined the dynamic of the fractured family in both Boogie Nights and in Hard Eight (where Philip Baker Hall played an old-school gangster who had once fraternized with similar lowlifes named Floyd Gondolli, his character’s name in Boogie Nights, and Jimmy Gator, the name of his character in Magnolia). Having lost his father during the production of Boogie Nights, Anderson almost heroically decided that he needed to purge a life’s worth of feelings before he could go on. Where Boogie Nights and Hard Eight sort of eat around the edges, Magnolia takes a giant bite from the center, probing its subjects in a constructed maze of heightened reality where questions as hilariously difficult as those in the card stack on What Do Kids Know? are actually asked and answered, and everyone puts their lives on hold for a minute to each take a half-verse of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” during one of the film’s most emotionally arresting moments.
For certain, Magnolia’s strategy was to be a palate cleanser that adopted a take-no-prisoners approach that dared to cast heavenly concerns on mankind. On this note, though very different in tone and temperament, Magnolia shares as much DNA with Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1971), itself a test to those causal audience members who thought M*A*S*H was kinda cute, as it does with Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), itself an ode to SoCal connectivity and lousy parents. Magnolia’s explicitly biblical climax was as much a plague on the characters’ inability to let go as it was a flushing of short-sighted, surface-level Tarantino disciples who had glommed on to Anderson after Boogie Nights and couldn’t see the giant delta between Pulp Fiction (1994) and something like The Boondock Saints (1999).
Not that it wasn’t appreciated in its day, time has been very kind to Magnolia. While Anderson sees some of it now as a little bloated and indulgent, it’s hard to find fault when youthful passion and the possession of enough stroke to fully express one’s self is as devastatingly brilliant as is done here. Perhaps Anderson felt like he revealed too much given how thematically reserved and sparse his next few films would prove to be. One thing is for certain, Anderson wouldn’t let as many angels and demons run amok and with as much reckless abandon as he would here, just as the millennium was coasting to a close.
As one writer said about the music of Steely Dan, never before had such beautiful flowers contained such sharp thorns. But, in the end, everything is not all bad. As Claudia Gator breaks the fourth wall and smiles at the audience before the smash cut to credits at the end, Magnolia reveals itself to be as much an ode to the hope found in tomorrow as it is to the pain that lingers from yesterday.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain