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The raw, cathartic power of coincidence in “Magnolia”

Whet your appetite for “Licorice Pizza” with Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic third feature, screening on 35mm at UW Cinematheque on December 11.

Header Image: Frogs inexplicably rain down from the partly cloudy blue sky in a scene from “Magnolia.”

With the upcoming Christmas Day release of Licorice Pizza, the highly anticipated new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, December feels like the perfect month to revisit the auteur’s ambitious and often underappreciated third feature Magnolia (1999). And, for one night only on Saturday, December 11, at 7 p.m., UW Cinematheque is screening a 35mm print of the film.

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A dazzling, kaleidoscopic, and multifaceted panorama of American lives on the verge of the new millennium, Magnolia marks a turning point in the artistic development of a visionary filmmaker who may occasionally overreach. Epic in scale yet meticulously observed, the film interweaves the stories of nine main characters as they struggle to find happiness, solace, meaning, and redemption over the course of 24 hours in California’s San Fernando Valley.

Anderson’s flawed, florid masterpiece unfurls with a magnificently frenetic visual flair while portraying a diverse assemblage of lost souls, including a lovesick police officer; a traumatized cocaine addict; a dying game show host; a terminally ill media mogul; a guilt-ridden trophy wife; a devoted, compassionate caretaker; a mistreated child prodigy, an alcoholic former child prodigy; and a tormented motivational speaker who is the embodiment of toxic masculinity. Magnolia blossoms into a ravishing cinematic experience as it gradually reveals how all these individuals are connected by blood, coincidence, and the way their lives reflect one another.

The film begins with a quirky little documentary about amazing coincidences narrated by actor, writer, and stage magician Ricky Jay. After a rapid-fire montage that sketches the lives of the principal characters while Aimee Mann’s version of Harry Nilsson’s ballad “One” plays, we meet policeman Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). He responds to a disturbance at the apartment of Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters) following an intense confrontation with her estranged father, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the longtime emcee of a television program called What Do Kids Know? Precocious young genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) remains the undisputed champion of the show, but his father seems more interested in winning the prize money than in nurturing his son’s gifts. “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) was briefly famous as a child on the show, but in adulthood, he fails to keep his dead-end job at a furniture store and desperately tries to raise funds for unnecessary corrective oral surgery in the misguided hope that he will attract a bartender who wears braces.

Meanwhile, “Big Earl” Partridge (Jason Robards), the wealthy, cancer-stricken producer of the show, lies on his sickbed bemoaning his infidelity to his first wife as his benign nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) attends to him. Earl’s younger, unhinged, pill-popping second wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), who only married him for money, realizes that she truly loves him and laments cheating on him. Earl’s dying wish is to find his long-lost son (Tom Cruise), a self-styled pickup artist who goes by the name of Frank T.J. Mackey and holds crude seminars for men on how to sexually coerce women through a mixture of flattery and psychological manipulation.

With this mosaic approach to storytelling and extraordinary ensemble cast, Magnolia invites comparisons to maverick director Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993). Incidentally, both films have a running time of exactly 188 minutes, feature Julianne Moore, and reach an apocalyptic climax.

Anderson deftly intertwines an impressive multiplicity of plots to tell one story, while sustaining a tone of heightened melodrama throughout and touching on a dizzying array of themes, such as death, abandonment, exploitation, adultery, child abuse, identity, forgiveness, regret, addiction, synchronicity, self-destruction, and love. In one way or another, the myriad threads converge on a surreal, portentous occurrence near the end of the film that assumes an almost biblical dimension. With its complex narrative structure, unanimously brilliant, fearless performances, dynamic visual style, peerless technical audacity, and unapologetic excesses, Magnolia stands as one of Anderson’s most compassionate, inspired, challenging, and self-indulgent creations.

Written and directed by Anderson when he was just 28 years old, Magnolia was a reaction to his previous film, Boogie Nights (1997). He never intended it to become such a big movie. In an exclusive interview with John Patterson for The Guardian, the director discusses how Magnolia developed into a sprawling collective portrait of people linked by daily lives of quiet desperation:

I wanted to make something that was intimate and small-scale, and I thought that I would do it very, very quickly. The point was that I wanted to shed myself of everything that was happening around “Boogie Nights.” And I started to write and well, it kept blossoming. And I got to the point where it’s still a very intimate movie, but I realized I had so many actors I wanted to write for that the form started to come more from them. Then I thought it would be really interesting to put this epic spin on topics that don’t necessarily get the epic treatment, which is usually reserved for war movies or political topics.

In this same interview, Anderson candidly reveals that his scripts start out as “lists of things that are interesting to me, images, words, ideas, and slowly they start resolving themselves into sequences and shots and dialogue.” For Magnolia, he first saw an image of the smiling face of friend and actor Melora Walters and proceeded from there. New Line producer Michael De Luca promised Anderson complete creative control without even hearing an idea for the movie. Because of this remarkable privilege, Anderson was free to make what remains his most personal film to date. “I consider Magnolia a kind of beautiful accident,” he explained to Lynn Hirschberg for the New York Times Magazine in 1999. “It gets me. I put my heart—every embarrassing thing that I wanted to say—in Magnolia.”

Despite the film’s uncompromising length and whimsical stylistic flourishes that border on the pretentious, Magnolia exerts a raw, cathartic power as it overwhelms the senses and emotions. With this youthful, sophisticated, flamboyant, and penetrating mural of the human condition, Anderson aspires to something beyond mere entertainment, while still keeping viewers captivated for more than three hours. However, in 2015, Anderson confessed to Marc Maron on his WTF podcast that he would cut the film differently if he made it today. “I wasn’t really editing myself,” he said. “It’s way too fucking long.”

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