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By Ray Pride

JANUARY 10, 2000:  Sins of the father, sins of the child, no difference.

Paul Anderson's "Magnolia" says, among many other things, face them or perish. Regret leads to despair leads to rage. The third feature by the writer-director of "Boogie Nights" is a fractured, magnanimous, operatic folly, trying at each and every second to rip out your very heart with his unstinting, jazzy too-muchness. One viewing is drenching; I wonder what a second can reveal. It may be great. It is certainly one of the most audacious, most wrenching lunges for greatness by any director under 30 I can think of in years. Here is a born filmmaker who wears his heart on his nicotine-stained sleeve. Anderson's ambition is nothing less than to separate the workings of fate from the boxes we pack ourselves into out of fear.

His San Fernando Valley is a City of Angles, where everyone is 90 degrees away from turning a corner into someone else's life. The actors start at a rip and then go farther, farther, faster. The single day that weaves together a dozen principle characters is purgative, cathartic. There is nothing vague. People—actors—fall apart like objects just past warranty.

Anderson works with the most naked extremes of emotion. The result is deliriously, shamelessly emotional and bald, invoking even biblical plagues. But loneliness is the worst plague his dozen principal characters know. They need to be touched, but fear anyone who might; one character finds her soulmate and tentatively tosses that person away, asking if it would be all right that if in that single perfect moment, "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?" (That character has the gift of the film's exquisite closing image.)

Imagine Robert Altman, given a 29-year-old's generous heart, directing a script part Paddy Chayefsky, with a dash of Mamet blue, a Californian's willingness to let emotions pour like rain. Anderson is an odd one, an original whose work is packed with the superficials of influence—notably Altman's mosaics, actor-love and many of the same actors (Julianne Moore, Michael Murphy, Henry Gibson); Mamet, profanity, the thrill of spoken repetition, verbal slips and slipperiness, as well as blue language and many of the same actors (Ricky Jay, William H. Macy). (Notably, Mamet cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as the romantic lead of his latest, "State and Main," thus following in the footsteps of Anderson.) But Anderson's work is headlong, grabby, generous in a way neither Altman or Mamet's is; it bears his own idiosyncratic, kinetic verve. But all three directors esteem family, surrounding themselves with a surrogate clan of the same performers and technicians each time. And, appropriately, that is the meat of "Magnolia." "I love to watch actors," Anderson's written. "I strive to impress them. I have discovered that I write movies so that I can be around my friends who are actors."

Such friends: John C. Reilly's forlorn cop is that rare portrait of a good-hearted foul-up; Philip Baker Hall manages to be a calm splutterer trying to make peace with his own impending death; Macy's character is as burned-out a failure as you're likely to see with this much screen time in American film. Flamboyance is just a place to start in Anderson's fevered world.

"We may be through with the past but the past isn't through with us," is a refrain in the dialogue, working like lyrics in songs. And indeed, Aimee Mann's songs weave throughout like the director's voice above the din, an omniscient voice-over of the dark night of the soul shared by the umpteen actors in the three hours and eight minutes of the story. But they are matched by other forms of glorious yammer: Julianne Moore has a sublime scene with an attorney in which her aggrieved wife-to-be-widow finds a dozen variations on the line, "Shut the fuck up!" Jason Robards is her husband, whom she married for money but finds she loves as he lies on the his deathbed, rattling on semi-coherently about his many regrets. Tom Cruise is a cock-of-the-walk motivational speaker for the halt and lame of the dating game, trashing the possibility of relationships with women in an infernal monologue about "the cock and the cunt." He is his father's son: but is Robards his father? And what is there to say? Hasn't it all been said on the deathbed, hasn't it all been said when a television interviewer takes away your carefully constructed reality (the way it's done to Cruise's character's invented persona).

"You fucked up, you should have quit, until circumstances have changed a bit," goes another Mann lyric. I doubt that a few of the early unperceptive reviews will lead a talent as headstrong as Anderson to despairing that's the lyric he should hold to heart. Songs go on, like that one does: "I don't think so... All that stuff I knew before turned to 'please love me more'... please love me."

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