Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights is an equally long but far more disturbing look at guilt, regret, embarrassment, and reconciliation. Anderson weaves together seemingly unrelated vignettes, but he manages cleverly to tie them all together. It feels like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts for the first half-hour or so (both films have a loser cop side story), but it digs much deeper and is far more experimental than Altman’s random collage of stories. Anderson’s script is so in your face it is almost grating in its bravura. The dialogue is often bracing and confrontational as we witness several characters’ most intimate thoughts and feelings. Several people left the theater after a particularly uncomfortable but hilarious scene where John C Reilly’s dufus cop checks on a domestic disturbance call at a black woman’s apartment. Her relentless string of profanity rivals any gangster film of the seventies, but none of it is gratuitous or showy. Anderson’s perspective is gritty and urban and real and he doesn’t hold back on any level.
Everything takes place in one day in the San Fernando Valley, and every character is struggling with some sort of guilt or frustration. William H. Macy plays Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, a former child star whose parents squandered his fortune from the gameshow What Kids Know. He turned out to be a completely dysfunctional man so confused and damaged that he can’t even hold down the most rudimentary job at an electronics warehouse. Macy plays his character with an hyper sense of desperation and despair. Tom Cruise makes the biggest splash in the film, though, as a self-help guru for men seeking dominance over women. His father (Jason Robards) left him to take care of his dying mother when he was only fourteen, and Cruise’s character has to decide whether or not he wants to see his ailing father now that the he, too, is on his deathbed, dying of cancer. Cruise’s performance is over the top and steals the show.
Anderson is trying to prove to us that none of these stories is random or arbitrary. We see the cause and effect cycle of several people’s lives and how damaged they truly become. Julianne Moore plays Jason Robards’ trophy wife, who wants to have her husband’s will changed because she feels guilty that she will soon inherit his fortune when he dies. Her guilt stems from the fact that she only married him for his money and, consequently, cheated on him countless times; however, while taking care of him in his last months, she has actually fallen in love with him. Her struggle with the guilt makes her so emotional and suicidal she can barely carry on a conversation, and her performance is unnerving. Anderson studies the limits of unconditional forgiveness and questions its merits over and over again.
Music plays a huge role in Magnolia. Anderson pulls Aimee Mann out of major label obscurity and puts her brittle, heavily acoustic music to work. Her songs saturate the film and even feel like a collective character, particularly in the montage sequence Anderson weaves together wherein the main characters mouth the words that seem specifically written for them. It’s eerie and effective. The technique is hackneyed and cliched in the music video world but it is a rarity in film, and Anderson pulls it off amazingly well. The characters briefly escape their respective realities even if it’s only for the brief length of the song itself. Mann’s version of Harry Nilsson’s “One” is haunting and climactic, suiting the mood of the film. Her voice is plaintive and glides within the somber spectrum of her ineffaceable melancholy.
Magnolia’s ending is unforgettable. Anderson incorporates a freakish act of nature unlike anything you’ve ever seen on film. In lieu of all the conflicts coming to their inevitable heads, everything goes limp and sort of floats in the wake of the bizarre circumstances. It snaps each character out the solipsistic worldview that manifests itself in individuals who suffer from depression. The similarity to Short Cuts again rears its ugly head as that film’s ending also used a natural disaster of sorts in its absurdly funny culmination, but Magnolia has more in common The Ice Storm, the way Rick Moody used that freakish storm to exacerbate everyone’s guilty conscience. Also like Moody, Anderson doesn’t try to tidy up the emotional mess, but he does, thankfully, open the door for a way out.