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Weekly Alibi Boulevard of Broken Dreams

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 17, 2000:  With his second feature film (and first major theatrical release after the little-seen Hard Eight), Paul Thomas Anderson established himself as one of America's boldest new voices. His breakout film, Boogie Nights, was not only a bravura bit of filmmaking, but it established Anderson's cheeky sense of humor. Who else would have taken a controversial epic about the late '70s porn industry and turned it into such a passionate appeal for family values?

Anderson's follow-up film, Magnolia, shares a number of similarities with its predecessor (not the least of which is its stellar ensemble cast). Magnolia is a sprawling, dazzling, frustrating and ultimately brilliant bouquet of a film that manages to be both epic and intimate at the same time. Taking a massive all-star cast and scattering them throughout California's San Fernando Valley, Anderson spins a collection of tales about fathers, sons, daughters, redemption, death, forgiveness and inclement weather.

Among the many stories Anderson explores is that of cancer-stricken millionaire Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who lies on his deathbed drawing his last breaths and drowning in regret. Seems that, on the edge of success, Earl walked out on his first wife and young son. Now, some 30 years down the line, a not-long-for-this-world Earl wishes to set the record straight. He issues a dying request to his in-home caregiver, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to locate his estranged son for one final heart-to-heart. That long-lost son, it turns out, has grown into an adult (a startlingly against-type Tom Cruise) and is now a testosterone-heavy self-help guru coaching emasculated men on the finer points of "seducing and destroying" the fairer sex.

While Earl lies dying, his second wife -- a money-grubbing trophy bride (Boogie Nights' Julianne Moore) -- comes to the crushing realization that she is actually in love with her dying sugar daddy. Somewhere on the other side of Magnolia Boulevard, a good-hearted, Jesus-loving cop (Boogie Nights' John C. Reilly) stumbles across the apartment of an emotionally brittle, chemically dependent young woman (Melora Walters, also of Boogie Nights). Elsewhere, Stanley Spector (Michael Bowen) -- a child genius under the influence of his "stage mother" father -- battles for fame on the quiz show "What Do Kids Know?" Meanwhile, the host of that show -- beloved TV personality Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) -- discovers that he has cancer and has, perhaps, not led the most exemplary of lives. Last but not least, a star of "What Do Kids Know?" from the 1960s, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy, again of Boogie Nights), has gone from whiz kid genius to adult loser -- struggling to keep his job at an electronics store and fumbling awkwardly for love at a local watering hole.

While this panoply of misfit characters would seem to have little in common other than their SoCal locale, there is a curious narrative quirk at work here. In Anderson's universe, fate, coincidence and pure supernatural luck play a powerful role. Before long, these diverse storylines will coalesce into a single, haunting tale. Slowly, the ties that link all these people together will be revealed.

To hammer home the idea of universal destiny, Anderson herds all his characters toward one bizarre finish line. Those expecting a single, explain-it-all crescendo, however, might be disappointed by the crazy, chaotic plot twist that lies in store. Despite all of Anderson's talk about cosmic coincidence, his climactic confluence has nothing to do with what has come before and bears little narrative significance. It is, however, one of the weirdest moments you'll see on screen all year.

Some have compared Magnolia to Robert Altman's multi-storied California opus Short Cuts; but Anderson is far more of a humanist filmmaker than Altman. Whereas Altman observes his quirky characters with the calm detachment of an anthropologist, Anderson feels for every one of the lost souls he has created and searches desperately for their redemption. Each character in Magnolia represents one half of a sad duality. Stanley Spector and Donnie Smith are two sides of the same coin. Earl Partridge and Jimmy Gator are linked through their karma. Tom Cruise's bitter woman-hater and John C. Reilly's kind-hearted crusader are a Jekyll-and-Hyde duo. Julianne Moore's drug-addled wife and Melora Walter's cocaine-addicted masochist are twins hiding their overwhelming emotional pain in a haze of medication. At the center of it all is Philip Seymour Hoffman's linchpin character Phil Parma, the only person who isn't scrambling to clean up his own past.

Acting on all these characters ranges from good to Oscar-worthy. Julianne Moore (a thorny actress in the best of circumstances) comes off least well of all the cast, primarily because she has but a single mood to evince. Moore spends the entire movie in a teary-eyed emotional fit, making her character difficult to access. Taking home top acting honors, though, are Melora Walters and Tom Cruise. Walters' emotionally distant/emotionally needy junkie is a beautiful combination of impurity and innocence. Cruise's Tony Robbins-meets-Howard Stern character is a risky role and proves that the superstar picked up a trick or two from his multi-year stint with Stanley Kubrick. Magnolia represents the best, most layered work of Cruise's career.

Occasionally, Anderson loses his way in this complicated maze of regret and absolution. A subplot about a murder seems unfinished and, ultimately, distracting. The metaphor of cancer gets seriously overworked (no less than three characters suffer from this self-destroying affliction). And at more than three hours, many viewers will find Anderson's melancholy little parable about human nature rather self-indulgent. It is -- but it's also one of the most inventive, mesmerizing and thought-provoking films of this (or any) year. Patient viewers willing to commit their time and attention will find many rewards awaiting them down Anderson's Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

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