“We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us” is the recurring theme of this new movie by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Hard Eight).
Certainly, the director takes every opportunity to drive home his point in a variety of emotionally draining ways, be they scenes of parent/child breakdowns, hideously snafued attempts at love, or the steely maw of previous indiscretions rising up to swallow characters whole amidst the trappings of their present lifestyles. As a theme, it's not exactly what you'd call revelatory, but Anderson, a director so capable in his craft that he managed to make Mark Wahlberg -- late of the Funky Bunch -- into something of a legitimate actor, hammers it all home with a sure eye and a stunning display of directorial chops that can only be described as relentless. Make no mistake, Magnolia
is unlike any other film released this past year, be it from the aspect of its storylines, of which there are many, or its emotional clarity, which is, quite frankly, brutal. (I get the feeling Anderson was fond of tether ball as a child, perhaps drawing a face on the little yellow ball and batting intently at it for hours until his fists gave out.) Still, for all its brilliance, resonance, and sheer directorial chutzpah, Magnolia
left me reeling, and not so often in a good way. (This time out, we're
the tether ball.) Magnolia
offers up a whole raft of misbegotten characters, some more than most, and all bracketed by an amusingly vague opening (narrated by Ricky Jay) which attempts to explain (or not -- it's a bit vague) the randomness of chance and the inevitability of coincidence and a trio of weather reports for the San Fernando Valley where the lengthy (three hours-plus) film takes place. There's Earl Partridge (Robards), an elderly man dying of cancer (and tended to by a sympathetic male nurse played by Hoffman) who longs to be reunited with his estranged son, Frank Mackey (Cruise), who's apparently spent the better part of his adult life as a sick and venal self-help guru, advising desperate audiences of men on the best way to “seduce and destroy” the “weaker” sex. There's Earl's coquettish young wife Linda (Moore), wracked by self-doubt and torn by her sudden, wholly incomprehensible love for a man whom she had planned to marry just for his money. There's the greed-addled Rick Spector (Bowen) and his young prodigy son Stanley (Blackman), who plays the “quiz kid” TV-show circuit to score emo points with bad dad while the formerly famous, formerly stable quiz kid Donnie Smith (Macy) skulks, broken, in the background. And then there's the film's emotional center, good-guy/sad-sack cop Jim Kurring (Reilly), who falls like a sack of hammers for the cocaine-twisted Claudia Gator (Walters), who in turn is related to yet another character. This tangled skein of bad juju cuts through the film like a dull knife; it takes a while to get where it's going, and when it gets there -- more or less -- you're wondering what all the hoopla was about. Well, heck, it's about Anderson's uncompromising abilities as a director, I suppose; but is that enough? It will be for many people, I think, but I was left marveling at Anderson's abilities (and, yes, those of his amazing, unparalleled cast, particularly Reilly and -- no surprise here -- Hoffman) but curious about the big picture, if, indeed, there is one. It clouds the issue to mention that the whole shebang ends on a portentously literal Biblical note that nearly blunted my index finger from the head-scratching spree it sent me on, but then if the director can throw everything and the kitchen sink in, why not the critic? There's no mistaking Magnolia's
warped splendor, or its frayed genius. It's a wholly original work from the get-go, but then so is life in general, and look at the reviews most people give that.