Does Paul Thomas Anderson's big breakthrough film really need an introduction? Magnolia is a modern classic, one of the few films that serve as a solid bridge between mainstream and arthouse cinema. It's up there with films like Memento, Pulp Fiction and Mulholland Dr., though I wasn't too sure what I would think of the film after all these years. A rewatch was in order and so I cleared 180 minutes in my agenda (hah) and sat down for a hefty dose of PTA.
Magnolia is one of my old favorites. A film I loved from before my big Eraserhead/Tetsuo turnaround. The thing is that a lot of the films I liked/loved back then don't really do it for me any more. Another thing is that lately I don't really stomach 180+ minute films too well, so I was kind of expecting to find myself somewhat disappointed with PTA's big masterpiece. Well, as it turns out there was none of that and I'm happy to say my expectations were well off.
Like Boogie Nights, PTA made Magnolia into a hefty ensemble film, following a handful of characters that are scarcely related to each other. The actual theme of the film is explained through some short sketches up front (and another one at the very end of the film). Basically it's about chance encounters and random successions of events leading up to almost unbelievable stories. A less than subtle wink to popular film criticism and something PTA really takes to extremes here.
There isn't really a plot, just a day in the lives of the protagonists. There's a former wizkid who failed to materialize on his earlier success, a dying old man, a young boy competing in Jeopardy, a cop on duty, an inspirational figure preaching his findings about women to other guys etc etc. They are all related in some way or another, even though they don't all meet up in a big sprawling finale. Not to worry though, PTA makes sure that there are plenty of other reasons to remember his film.
On the visual side of things, Magnolia is a pretty typical PTA movie. That means long (and complex) tracking shots and amiable camera work. The overall effect isn't too spectacular or in your face (colors, lighting and framing are acceptable but nothing to write home about), but it never looks dull or boring either. Personally I prefer something like Punch-Drunk Love, but compared to many other ensemble films Magnolia is one of the better-looking features out there.
The soundtrack is way more interesting. It's somewhat inconspicuous and it isn't all that memorable in itself, but it has a tremendous effect on how the film is perceived and remembered as a whole. For all the drama and hurt that is hidden away in Magnolia, the soundtrack is surprisingly upbeat. It's not exactly jolly or happy, just not what you'd expect when dealing with this kind of drama. No sad strings, unplugged guitars or lonely piano tunes, but something a little quirkier. And when PTA does go for a more dramatic impact, the music of Aimee Mann proves unique enough to keep the soundtrack well away from becoming too safe and/or generic.
I can't say anything bad about the cast either. Magnolia was my first encounter with many of the actors listed and it earned them quite some credit. People like William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore and John C. Reilly aren't quite favorites of mine, but I do hold them in high regard. Philip Seymour Hoffman stands out just a little more, but it's Tom Cruise performance that shows that PTA has a real knack for coaching actors. I'm not really a fan of Cruise, but his performance here is just fenomenal.
Don't be fooled, there is enough drama to fill 4 separate films here. From cancer to promising childhoods gone wrong, from abandoned sons to dying fathers, from drug-addicted women to molesting dads, it's all there. But after 180 minutes all I can remember is this quirky film with its heart in the right place. And it's exactly that what's been missing from more recent PTA films, which fail to find that balance and end up as boring, overly long dramas.
From a professional and critical point of view, Magnolia is probably PTA's most accomplished film. It's a three hour long ensemble film that feels playful, energetic and upbeat. The entire cast is flawless, the soundtrack is excellent and the film even packs some visual surprises. Personally I prefer more experimental stuff, which I why Punch-Drunk Love is still my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, but Magnolia is a must see for everyone bored with Hollywood and looking for something better to enjoy.