Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Blooming Wonder

JANUARY 17, 2000:  I'm sorry I don't have more room to write about Paul Thomas Anderson's dazzling Magnolia, which cuts with remarkable ease and dexterity among several interlocking sets of characters on a single cataclysmic day in the San Fernando Valley. As Noel Murray notes, it's an amazing director indeed who can fuse Martin Scorsese's speed-freak virtuosity and Robert Altman's kaleidoscopic character studies into a whole new hybrid. Yet Anderson's work here seems vastly superior to its main reference point, Altman's Short Cuts--even though Anderson is the one who has taken lumps for linking his characters through a spectacularly unhinged third-act catastrophe.

Magnolia expands upon the already imposing crazy-quilt structure of Anderson's Boogie Nights, a movie I underrated when it first came out. In fact, you could describe Magnolia as Boogie Nights times two, given its doubling of every main character and incident. The rhyming plots--two delinquent fathers, two betrayed adult children, two game-show victims, two desperate lovesick loners--would seem excessive, if they didn't reinforce Anderson's expansive and deeply humane notion that no one is truly alone, whether s/he knows it or not.

The combination of that peculiarly innocent sentiment and Anderson's hyperbolic bustle produces effects that are doubly moving for being so unguarded. The litmus test for the audience's patience is a lip-synching scene set to an Aimee Mann song, to which every character voices his unspoken despair in unison. Either you'll howl at the goofiness of the contrivance, or you'll marvel at the director's fearless humanism. If you've ever been dumbfounded by the fateful significance of a song on the radio, my guess is you'll give in.

Among an enormous and enormously talented cast, John C. Reilly stands out as a sweet-natured cop, as does Melora Walters as an anguished addict, Julianne Moore as a guilt-stricken wife, William H. Macy as a former quiz kid, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a tender caregiver--there are too many others to mention. Except for Tom Cruise, who redefines his career with a ferocious turn as a voracious cable-TV sex guru. Spouting pre-coital sloganeering ("Respect the cock!") with Tony Robbinsian fervor, Cruise lampoons his cocksure Top Gun persona to lacerating comic effect. Even so, he and Anderson refuse to let us overlook the humanity in his overblown boob--or the other aching souls caught in the story's trajectory. Magnolia is a hothouse flower, all right, but its perfume is close to intoxicating. --Jim Ridley


Fruitful

Director Lasse Hallstrom's thoughtful adaptation of John Irving's The Cider House Rules has been accused of being "pro-choice," and if the accusers are talking about the right to safe and legal abortion, then Hallstrom's film is guilty as charged. But abortion (as an alternative to unwanted children) is only one theme that Hallstrom illuminates from Irving's rich text. The Cider House Rules could be more rightly described as a film about the pain of choice--about what we're supposed to do with all our free will.

Tobey Maguire stars as Homer Wells, a passive, cheerful adult orphan who learns obstetrics and gynecology from his institutional guardian Dr. Larch (played by Michael Caine). Troubled by the doctor's constant rule-bending and law-breaking (including serving as an abortionist), Homer leaves the orphanage to work at an orchard, following a whim and a glimpse of a lovely apple-picker named Candy (Charlize Theron). At the apple orchard--no small biblical symbolism there--Homer learns that his fear of making bad moral choices has led him to do nothing in the face of evil. And inaction is itself a choice.

Hallstrom--who made two of the best sleepers of the '90s, Once Around and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?--worked from Irving's own script, and it's hard to imagine who could've done a better job. Hallstrom's understated naturalism combines with stellar performances across the board, especially by the amiable Maguire, and by Delroy Lindo as the troubled (and troubling) boss of a migrant worker team. The film is so sunny and soft that it's not until after the closing credits--while the viewer tries to make sense of a too-ambiguous ending--that the deft layering of potent religious metaphors begins to weigh heavily.

What holds The Cider House Rules back is the virtual impossibility of filming Irving's quirky plot twists. A couple of whopper revelations late in the story shatter the mood, no matter how hard Hallstrom and his cast fight to sustain it. (The same problem plagued George Roy Hill's otherwise fine adaptation of Irving's The World According to Garp).

But despite the rough road, the film's breathtaking demonstrations of how theoretical problems resonate in the real world are never less than invigorating. Hallstrom and Irving bite to the core of our sins; as the creed says, it's about what we have done, and what we have left undone. --Noel Murray


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