“I know this sounds silly… like this is the scene in the movie where the guy’s trying to get ahold of the long-lost son, you know… but this is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, you know? Because they really happen. See, this is the scene in the movie where you help me out.”
– Phil Parma
Magnolia begins as if it were shot out of a cannon. The three outlandish historical accounts spill right over into a rolling montage, set to Aimee Mann’s melancholy rendition of “One,” where we meet all of our players in varying degrees of distress or confidence. The busy mind of a then 30-years young Paul Thomas Anderson explodes into a symphony of sadness, regret, and an exploration into the damage fathers can cause on their children. It’s all very heavy, and immediate, but once the story settles in, and despite its continuous messy tangents into the surreal, Anderson’s follow up to his flashy porn opus Boogie Nights is an energetic look at heartbreak in all its forms, and one that caught me at the right place in my own life.
Time has lessened the impact of Anderson’s three-hour tour of the outskirts of Los Angeles, maybe just a little. Cracks have begun to show… it happens… and the narrative goes for the big reaction at times when a subtler provocation would do; Anderson would probably be the first to tell you Magnolia would be an entirely different movie if he made it now, pushing fifty, but witnessing this idiosyncratic journey into emotional depths unknown, watching in amazement as frogs rained down from the sky, there was no other film from that magical year of 1999 that stirred my soul the same way.
It’s difficult to list or rank any of the performances, because whenever any of the characters are on the screen you’re easily convinced it is them who is the best part of the picture, even if their story has been collecting warts these last two decades. There is John C. Reilly, one of the moral centers of the film, as the just-okay cop with a gaping hole in his heart; there is Claudia (played with an aching, angry sadness by Melora Walters), the troubled daughter of game-show legend Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), a scumbag celebrity host trying to right the wrongs in his life after a terminal cancer diagnosis; there is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the genius kid contestant on Gator’s What Do Kids Know? program, and his terrible exploitative father (Michael Bowen); preceding Stanley in the game show’s lore was “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, who took the game by storm as a kid before also being exploited by his parents, losing his fortune, being struck by lightning, and falling into a pit of personal despair as an adult. Donnie Smith has become a hapless loser now, an alcoholic teeming over with love to give, played by William H. Macy in an intentionally bad dye job and red glasses.
These are the stories swirling all around us in Magnolia, and each of these peripheral tales have their moments, but these sections are also where the film shows its age. So much of Macy’s story is meandering and driven by raw emotion that the scenes inside the bar sometimes lose focus. Reilly and Walters’ calmer scenes together are quite touching, but the investigation Reilly’s Jim Curran takes on – and the subsequent gun loss – never really worked from the start.
Where Magnolia still retains its impact after all these years, where it makes up for all the youthful misgivings, is in (arguably) the central plot, involving TV icon Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a man in his very last moments of life, his unhinged younger (former trophy) wife, Lily, played by Julianne Moore as a desperately regretful harlot too deep in the throes of pill addiction to fix her clouded mind, and Phil Parma, his nurse, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film’s most touching and humane performance. Hoffman’s Phil Parma is tasked with locating Earl’s estranged son, Frank, who became Frank “T.J.” Mackey, a misogynistic self-help guru for lonely men.
Tom Cruise plays Frank Mackey as a hardened, sexist shell of a human being whose teenage trauma has informed the rest of his cynical existence, the long flowing locks exposing a feminine side he’s always resented. Only gradually, through interview scenes with a plucky female reporter, do we see the layers of confidence stripped away from Frank, piece by agonizing piece. It’s incredible to see him shrink and wilt throughout the picture. 1999 was quite a year for Cruise; he released two features in ’99, this and Eyes Wide Shut, and both deconstructed the superstar’s heroic persona that had helped him define an entire decade of cinema. The nineties belonged to Cruise, and here he was, tearing all that machismo apart with wonderful complexity and depth. It’s a remarkably vulnerable performance, unlike anything we would ever see again from Cruise, and it should have culminated in an Oscar victory.
The frogs. The frogs still work, and the event was one of the more stunning left turns in cinematic history at the time. After almost three hours of watching these hopeless, lost souls careen off one another over the span of one long Los Angeles day, everything everywhere stops. It’s a moment of confusion and bewilderment, but it’s an event that seems to allow us – and the characters – to add perspective to the situation in which they find themselves. It’s a hard reset, a bombastic move from a young filmmaker with final cut and so much love and energy bottled up inside him he couldn’t help but pour it all out into his LA opus.
Critics mostly adored Magnolia when it hit theaters, though general audiences were scratching their heads about the frogs in the final act, as well as everyone in the cast pausing inside their respective stories to sing along with Aimee Mann’s Oscar-nominated song, “Save Me.” The singing scene is a powerful moment of respite amid the chaos of these people lives, a unifying voice of reason, albeit fleeting. Anderson’s bombastic choices don’t feel as absurd in our postmodern world, but in the final days of the 20th century they were fresh and exciting for some, confusing and alienating for others.
With the help of overseas box office numbers and the momentum generated by Boogie Nights, Anderson’s picture gathered almost $50 million against a $37 million budget as it finished out the year and the decade. Mann’s song, Cruise, and Anderson’s original screenplay were all nominated for Academy Awards, though none would win.
Sometimes, it’s the flawed movies that make an impact on us most. Not because they are “Perfect” or timeless, not because they are a certain filmmaker’s bona fide masterpiece, but because they grab ahold of our emotions in a unique way, and they linger in our mind for some time after. Or maybe they even help us; because their flaws feel like the imperfections in our own lives, and we can see through the style to the human. Magnolia touched me in 1999, as an 18-year old set loose in the world, unable to control my impulses, veering dangerously close to a path of addiction and failure. When I saw Magnolia for the first time I felt at home in the chaotic mental space of so many of these people, even though I never experienced such trauma in my own life. Nevertheless, my life felt out of control at the time, and Anderson’s film gave me an unexpected avenue for catharsis.
It’s no surprise, then, that a film about truly broken people in legitimately dangerous situations reset my brain, and helped redirect my priorities. It helped fix me. Just as Phil Parma says in the movie, “this is where you help me out,” these three hours of messy melodrama will forever stick with me, no matter how strange or clumsy it may seem in another twenty years.