by Jason Morrison
One is the loneliest number, indeed.
Magnolia, a big contender for Oscar nominations, makes the point well. From the lyrics of the song opening the film through the lives of the characters, from the loneliness of unrequited desire to the ultimate solitude of death. The film explores the barriers between people, the regret people feel for having constructed them, and the risk of coming together for the first time.
Strangely enough, the frame of the story is a Ripley's Believe It Or Not-style item about three incredible coincidences. Three men in Glenberry Hill, England are hung for robbery-their names Glen, Berry and Hill. A man scuba diving is scooped up by a firefighting plane and dies atop a half-burned tree. A boy, committing suicide, is shot accidentally by his mother as he falls past their apartment window. And yet, the film tells us, it did happen.
The stories in the frame are nothing when it comes to the string of coincidences in the body of the film, but really, there is no coincidence. The movie's second point is the inevitability of things, or perhaps the denial of chance as the explanation for amazing occurrences.
Now brace yourself.
Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying of cancer. His wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) married him for his money, but now despairs at his death. Earl asks his nurse, Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to contact his son. The son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), is the author of a popular dating and self-help system for men called "Seduce and Destroy" and wants nothing to do wit his father. One of the television shows Earl produces, called "What Do Kids Know," has been hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) for 30 years, but now he, too is dying of cancer. He tries to contact his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), but she screams at him and throws him out. The TV show's current star, Stanley Berry (Neil Flynn), is nearing a new record, but is pushed around by his demanding father, who sees him as little more than a valuable commodity. The now middle-aged record holder, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), is barely scraping by doing publicity for an electronics store, pining away for oral surgery-braces. And hard-working, but little appreciated cop Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) enters an apartment on a standard disturbance and finds two bodies.
Still following? Almost unbelievably, the film sorts out the relationships with ease. Things only get more complicated from here, as Phil finally contacts Frank, a reporter interviewing him about lies in his past. In what could possibly be the record-breaking show, Jimmy Gator collapses and Stanley is ignored to the point where he can't hold it any more, finally refusing to answer all the questions. Donnie is fired, and attempts robbery to get the money for his braces, which he thinks will impress a certain bartender. Officer Kurring comes to Claudia's apartment. As she hides cocaine, he decides to ask her on a date. And though he can't understand it, a little boy named Dixon (Emmanuel Johnson) gives Kurring the key to the murder.
A more detailed explanation of the storyline wouldn't really do it justice, though a bit-by-bit recounting does reflect the storytelling style. Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson weaves these people's stories together quite magically with short pieces on each. Just as the lives intersect, the pieces meld into one another. The characters are so fully realized by both the story and the actors that you never once lose track of what's going on. The only downside is that even after two hours, there are things you still want to see.
For one thing, it would have been nice to see more of neglected quiz-kid Stanley. Besides subtle treats like tying the frame of the story in with Stanley's Believe It Or Not book on child genius and a certain storm near the end, Stanley's story could have been much more powerful. Former quiz-kid Donnie, though he's given a chance to choose the right path for himself and even finds forgiveness, could have had a much more powerful actualization as well. His parents stole everything he won, and didn't really love him-so he seeks love in a man who symbolizes much of Donnie's life at the same time.
But those are the choices forced on a director who includes so many developed characters. The two dying characters are an interesting contrast-both with cancer, one has been dying for some time and the other has just found out. Both cheated on their wives, but one kept it away from her, finally confessing, while the other left her and his son-leaving the son to take care of his mother and develop a commercially-successful womanizing technique.
When all is said and done, the film's primary fault is it's tendency to remind the viewer, quite directly, that this is all real. With such a well-written, well-performed film, the "and yet it did happen" seems almost like an apology-"gee, we sure are sorry things are a bit outlandish at this point, please suspend disbelief… now!"
There's no need for that. The series of weather reports used in the film are a great way to lead into the film's meteorological climax and reinforce the everyday feel to the story, but clash somewhat with the Ripley's framing device. And the film does drag, just a little, right near the end. It's clear that Anderson doesn't want to short-change any of his characters, which is admirable, but the same jigsaw construction that works elsewhere also provides many false "the end" reactions.
For a movie to express the consequences of injustice during childhood, the possibility of redemption through free choice, and the inevitability of death is amazing. Magnolia is a bargain at three hours.
(Out of five)