There, wedged atop the title, reads a new creditline: "a p.t. anderson picture." If this bit of inverse vanity is the only outward sign of Paul Thomas Anderson's desire to be considered a Great American Director, then so be it. The movie it precedes, Magnolia, is as beguiling, complex, and messy as any epic of auteur indulgence that has come before.
With its cast of nine characters, its interwoven personal stories, its lack of a traditional beginning/middle/end, Magnolia is clearly an attempt by Anderson to craft a statementnot only about our era's parental missteps, but about his filmmaking abilities. Boogie Nights was no flukejust take a look at this! But what do you knowhe succeeds on both counts. While he employs similar story structure and casting, Anderson takes Magnolia into much more mature territory than Boogie Nights' 70s flashback, examining the emotional and social repercussions of destroyed childhoods. In the process, he stumbles a few times over his own ambitions, but manages to keep his balance through equal parts cockiness and pure talent.
If you're a fan of clearly defined storylinesa plotpoint in every act (of which there are three) involving a central character who must overcome some obstaclethen Anderson is not your man. Magnolia is an Altman-esque mosaic of vignettes of characters who are unknowingly related, and we follow them along in a 24-hour span as they struggle with hope and despair in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. First, there's former TV producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards)a dying man tended to by a devoted nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman)who wants to see his estranged son before he goes. This son is Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a testosterone-charged motivational speaker who teaches men how to get laid. One of Partridge's most popular shows is What Do Kids Know?, a game show that pits teams of adults versus children, hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who is also dying of cancer and wants to make peace with his estranged daughter (Melora Walters). She in turn is being courted by schlubby LAPD officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who catches former What Do Kids Know? kid genius Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) trying to rob a store. Then there's current kid genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) and his money-hungry dad Rick (Michael Bowen), not to mention Partridge's hysterical trophy wife Linda (Julianne Moore).
How do you give so many actors enough lines to make it worth their (and our) time? Easymake the film go over three hours. Hardmaking it a worthwhile 190 minutes. But Anderson does indeed create a movie that merits the time investment and necessary bladder control (though he could've safely shaved 30 minutes). He clearly adores his characters and the actors who portray them, and it shows in every scene. As a writer, Anderson offers up juicy roles most thespians would kill for, with big emotions and big backstories. As a director, he shapes every scene as THE scene, a setpiece for dramatic confrontation, and he lets it run for as long as it takes. This quality is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, it makes for unforgettable images and performances (Cruise doing a backflip in his briefs as an expression of pure hormonal giddiness, Robards bitterly condemning himself for screwing over his wife and child, Macy bleakly crying out his need to give love if only he could find someone to give it to). On the other hand, it also leads to fizzled experiments that should've been left for the DVD edition (such as each character separately gazing off and singing the same Aimee Mann song at the same time).
Nevertheless, the portraits come together to paint a bigger picture of an emotionally dysfunctional generation. Anderson has a gift for creating meaningful characters who are instantly identifiable and likable despite their faults. The reason why Boogie Nights was such an exciting success wasn't because it was the first major movie about the porn industry, it was because it had new characters you could genuinely care about who typified not only their industry but their era. With Magnolia, Anderson realizes his promise as a writer by taking such defining characters and applying them to an even deeper themehow our selfishness affects our children's lives forever. While chance plays a large role in these characters' lives, the actions of their parents send out wave-like ripples of angst that cannot be evaded. We may be done with the past, a drunken Donnie Smith reiterates throughout the movie, but the past isn't done with us.
Magnolia makes another statement, simply by happenstance: it capped off a tremendous year for movies predicated on the talents of particular directors. Through the 80s and 90s, the focus of the filmmaking process was ceded to high concepts, special effects, and mega-stars. The days when visionary directors called the shots, creating challenging movies for adults, were considered long gone. But now, with young directors like p.t. anderson, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, David Fincher, Sam Mendes, M. Night Shyamalan (and old school directors like Martin Scorsese, Milos Foreman, Woody Allen, and David Lynch) the near-future of American cinema has never seemed brighter.