Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Bloom's Day

"Magnolia" blossoms a bit too much

By Peter Keough

JANUARY 10, 2000:  Last year, maverick filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson burst from the indie fold with the surprise critical and box-office hit Boogie Nights. Bolstered by this success and studio backing, he returns with Magnolia, a movie even more brilliant and, at over three hours, far too long. If an hour of weeping and other excesses had been deleted, Magnolia could well have been the best film of the year.

As it is, it's worth watching for its sheer imaginative exuberance, unabashed passion, and brash confidence. Let's just hope that with his next movie Anderson takes the advice of a good script editor.

Not that he needs any help with the film's first 15 minutes, which are as compressed and organic as the rest of the film is loosely wrapped and overwrought. A tongue-in-cheek prologue in the mode of Unsolved Mysteries presents three examples of how invented truth is stranger than fiction, a trio of "historical" cases of coincidence and poetic injustice illustrating the truism that fate and synchronicity often add up to more -- and less -- than meets the eye. A cut is made to a gorgeous, computer-generated magnolia blossom unfolding in intricate detail to the tune of Aimee Mann singing Nilsson's "One," and that carries over to the breathless, tracking introduction of the film's major characters and storylines, an overture so dense and fluid that if it were sustained much longer, exhilaration would give way to exhaustion.

Mercifully, and perhaps unfortunately, the pace slows and the interbraided story motifs are unraveled. It turns out that Anderson tends to mistake redundancy for depth. Most films would be satisfied with just one abusive father dying of cancer seeking reconciliation with an estranged child; this one's got two. There's Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, chewing the scenery as well as his oxygen mask), a TV executive on his death bed attended by his neurotic trophy wife, Linda (a paler, weepier Julianne Moore), and by his compassionate male nurse, Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a rare bland role). Earl's last wish is to get back in touch with his estranged son, Frank (Tom Cruise, back to the id-channeling of Born on the Fourth of July after the repression of Eyes Wide Shut), a male-empowerment guru whose motto is "Respect the cock! Tame the cunt!"

Sick bad dad #2 is Larry Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the crapulous host of the kiddie quiz show What Kids Know. He's trying to get back together with his estranged daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters in a cunning, fragile performance), who's a junkie. Meanwhile, LAPD loser Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a cop who passes the lonely cruising hours (riding shotgun with him is a shotgun) pretending he's on Cops, has responded to a complaint at Claudia's apartment and in between reciting platitudes to her thinks he's fallen in love.

Then there's not one but two abused child prodigies. The older, Donnie (William H. Macy), has traded in his '60s quiz-show fame for a job at an electronics outlet and a desire to get braces in order to be like the bartender he has a crush on. The younger, Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), dazzles the audience of What Kids Know by singing lyrics from Carmen in French but still can't get love from his father (who is not dying of cancer) or a bathroom break from the show's draconian producers.

So what of the black woman with the dead man in her closet, or the prophetically rapping kid who steals Kurring's gun? Intriguing loose ends, they don't get tied up in Anderson's day-in-the-lives fugal structure, which culminates in too many teary climaxes. One, in which Robards whines for 10 minutes, is insufferable; another, in which various members of the cast improbably pick up, à la The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the refrain of Aimee Mann's haunting "Wise Up," is both hilarious and touching. In general, though, the ambitious counterpointing of eight of her songs with the narrative doesn't quite pay off.

What does pay off is a turn in the weather that is both absurdly unexpected and, given the odd Biblical reference spotted on marquees and elsewhere (not to mention the film's heavy debt to Robert Altman's Short Cuts), surprisingly apt. This device too suffers from overkill, but it's a welcome relief. After hanging as dense and heavy as the scent of the title flower for what seems several lifetimes, Magnolia blooms into its apocalyptic finale not a moment too soon.

Budding genius

LOS ANGELES -- After three hours of Magnolia, one of the year's most challenging and ambitious movies, a bizarre, intense exploration of subjects ranging from fate and coincidence to game shows and tabloid TV, the question everyone is most eager to ask director P.T. (formerly Paul Thomas) Anderson was: that big kielbasa Tom Cruise sports in his shorts -- was it real?

"I learned to put a big dick in every movie," says Anderson, referring to the prosthesis Mark Wahlberg exposes at the end of the wunderkind director's last film, Boogie Nights, an epic of the '70s porn industry and family values. "Is it real? Ask Nicole [Kidman, Cruise's wife]."

Clearly, Anderson is a filmmaker who values length, but he doesn't think size matters much if you don't know how to use it. Magnolia, as he describes it, follows a calculated, quasi-musical structure. Starting with an abrupt statement of themes, it develops them and then resolves them in a climax and coda.

"I had this structure all planned out. Basically this prologue would happen a mile a minute, give you these three stories, leave you wondering, 'What the fuck was that?' And then in a very quick and elliptical, musical way we'd meet our characters. And then actually the movie takes a slow beat to be able to introduce those characters with a little more information. Once you've done that, the movie kicks in. We're cross-cutting and the music starts and it just goes and goes and goes. We are winding through the day. And that will wind and wind and wind and wind, and ultimately you will get to the place where the rain stops. And then the idea was to slow it down there, to be able to take a breath on all that information that has just come at you."

Which sets you up for the film's big twist, which Anderson doesn't want to give away. When it's suggested that the film is like a cross between Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Robert Altman's Short Cuts, he frowns. "I haven't seen Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There are parallels to Short Cuts -- an LA movie that has multiple characters. And I think I love Short Cuts, but I never thought of that. What I missed from Short Cuts is plot. It's just slice-of-life -- this happens over here, this happens, that happens -- and they're not entirely connected. What was interesting to me was throwing in a mystery plot. The thriller elements into everyday drama."

And since we're throwing around the names of filmmaking geniuses, how about the Stanley Kubrick reference of playing the opening bars of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra as an introduction to Tom Cruise?

"Tom got this wonderful kick out of this, saying, 'Stanley's going to love this. It's going to be so funny.' The idea was that you have the biggest movie star in the world in your movie. When he's first introduced, it's on this shitty little television screen doing an infomercial. But then for those who need the movie-star entrance, we're going to play 2001, and he's going to fucking come charging down the stage and say the line that he says."

Which is the now legendary "Respect the cock! Tame the cunt!" Was that line a factor in Cruise's taking this part after the sexual frustrations of Eyes Wide Shut?

"I think that was a major draw for him, actually. And I made fun of him after I saw Eyes Wide Shut. I said, no wonder you were fucking so anxious to be in this movie. You were the repressed Dr. Bill for two years. Two fucking years, man, you know, and you didn't get to do anything. The whole time he's dying to get laid. The guy's just . . . he's never said 'cunt' in a movie before."

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