Magnolia is a film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who also directed There Will Be Blood along with Boogie Nights. The best way to describe this film is as being an epic drama; I really can’t think of too many dramas that have the scope of this particular film. It clocks in at over 3 hours long but the interesting thing is that it doesn’t feel nearly as long as it should, it feels a whole lot shorter because he keeps the pace flowing like water down a raging river of blood. It’s a lesson in filmmaking that many times is lost on the audiences (and others filmmakers): when you have compelling content, the length does not matter. When audiences are swept up in what they are seeing, a 3 hour film can feel like 90 minutes. PT Anderson refused to cut a single bit from Magnolia and I am glad that he didn’t because each moment seems to matter. Every conversation is revealing something about the characters partaking in them, ripping back layers while still never sure if we’ll ever reach the core. But there are several instances where we do in fact reach the center of these people and the end result is insanely captivating due to the pitch-perfect pace PT Anderson employed.
There are several themes on display in Magnolia, one being the subject of coincidences and chance; another relating how children can sometimes be forced to grow up too quickly and what the consequences of those circumstances are. From the get go, we are thrown into a montage of incredible true stories that seem extremely hard to believe but are in fact real. Life and the ‘unconnected’ events that populate it are seemingly revealed to be much more than what meets the eye at first glance. Is it still considered a suicide if you jump off of a building rooftop and are shot on the way down? Would the person firing the gun be considered a murderer? But what if you loaded that gun several days before and the person did not think it was loaded? Little details like these can matter, no matter how strange and inhuman they seem to be.
So Magnolia presents life as being a waltz where everything affects everyone in ways that are hard to see but can be revealed when doing a little searching. More importantly, it wants you to know that quibbling over whether something seems too true to believe gets in the way of the truth itself. Many people want everything to be broken down into theories and reason, to understand why certain things happen, a cause and effect. It seems that in history, however, there are simply many things that cannot be logically explained but are nevertheless just as true. Asking “Why?” may not always be the most important question to ask.
We see how stunted childhood affects children themselves along with the adults whose lives have been ruined from this sort of predicament. There are two characters in particular who are quiz show geniuses: one is Stanley, a child actively competing on the quiz show ‘What Do Kids Know?’; the other, Donnie (played by William H. Macy), was a celebrity in the 60’s as a child on the same show, whose life was ruined from his parents taking all of his money and leaving him out to dry. So we get to see this process as it’s happening along with the ability to witness the future ramifications of it. Donnie is essentially a man-child, a kid who never grew out of being a kid. His decision to get braces is based solely on a crush he has on a local bartender he fancies. He is extremely impulsive, sometimes even committing crimes without thinking through it first, and when he does finally reconsider his actions, it is usually too late.
Donnie is also a terrible driver, terrible at money management and is consistently tardy to his job which causes him to get fired. He mopes around in search of love which we learn he didn’t receive enough of as a kid. And this is one of the first signs within the film where we see a central theme arise: parents inadvertently cutting short the hopes of progression for these children to turn into reasonable adults. Ironically, most of these children are forced into adulthood at an early age, which causes them to retreat more and more into their childhood fantasies. Because Donnie’s parents stole from him at such a young age, he wasn’t strong enough to defend himself. This fuels his temper which fuels his incompetency. He is defeated time and time again because he cannot grasp how normal adults are expected to behave. For all of the intelligence he possessed as a kid, social functionality is something that cannot always be taught in books.
Stanley, however, is consistently being pushed by his father who essentially banks on him to win every game in ‘What Do Kids Know?’. The father, a struggling actor, is incredibly demanding and wants the world from Stanley, who is almost portrayed as the main bread winner in his household. But alas, a child is still a child; a huge problem arises when in the middle of a live broadcast of the quiz show, Stanley has to use the bathroom and is denied the right to do so. The adults control the show and they expect him to hold it in like the rest of them do. But this is a kid and these sorts of controlling functions do not always work in the same manner as adults and at the same time, he is being denied his freedom of control that adults commonly have, which still pushes him down to a lower status of simply ‘being a kid’. So a core contradiction arises in these relationships where a child is expected to act like an adult but is still treated like a kid. Magnolia presents this case as something innately unfair and builds this tension effectively.
Tom Cruise plays a character named Frank TJ Mackey, in what is probably his best role that he has ever done (he won a Golden Globe for this performance). He plays a dating guru for wannabe players, putting out lame infomercials on TV and in Hustler magazines. But what shines with him is the duality of his personality, a carefully honed cacophony of contradictions. There’s a wounded soul inside that body and he very much still acts like a boy, which makes sense given his abandonment issues he has had to deal with in his life. He is a child with the hardened, bulletproof shell of an appearance that presents him as a Teflon lady-killer. In the beginning, we get to see the larger-than-life spectacle that he performs in, a misogynist circus that is designed to help other boys in need of conquering the female species. He talks about being lied to by women, about being hurt and hearts being destroyed. As the film continues, this illusion is broken down, chipped away little by little from circumstances beyond his control. We eventually learn more of the truth that lays the foundation for his grandiose lies; his seemingly distasteful treatment of women may in turn actually be a powerful need to be around them since they remind him of his mother whom he deeply cares about. His father, Earl Partridge, is also a major player in the film and the more the connection between them is explored, the more you learn how brittle the soul of Frank TJ Mackey really is. This contradiction of character is amazingly engrossing to view and the character arc of Frank TJ Mackey is, in my opinion, one of the best arcs in modern film.
In relation to Earl Partridge, a huge running theme in the film also happens to be guilt and regret. Guilt for the things you’ve done that you’ve never bothered to address or simply swept under the rug in an attempt to forget what you’ve done. But years from now, will it haunt you? When you’re old and lonely, stuck with your thoughts for most of the day, will it creep back up on you? Can you do anything at that point or has the damage already been done? At what point does an action become irreversible? Is there a time table as to when damage can be controlled? These are important questions because most humans, at some point or another, grapple with the consequences of our actions, especially when we realize that we were in the wrong. In many ways, the adults in this film that grapple with guilt behave like children, the cycle folding in on itself. Their behavior is narcissistic and tremendously selfish, wanting to get ahead by any means or feel joy, even at the detriment of those closest to them. Every action seems to have some sort of link to an outcome within the structure of Magnolia and in this case, the outcome is represented by emotionally scarred characters.
It is not all a completely bleak adventure, however. Humor creeps throughout in a sly and conniving manner. Officer Jim (played by John C. Reilly) is an authority figure who doesn’t seem to have much of a social life and a dating life in dire need of resuscitation. He makes a fatal (and some would say, childish) mistake in not only managing to lose his gun but letting a criminal steal it away from him. He also meets Claudia and throughout their interactions, we get to witness a budding romance that wouldn’t seem out of place in an 8th grade class room. They are both extremely awkward and constantly make fools of themselves, showing that in many ways we perhaps never completely grow out of adolescence.
Magnolia is a grand scale character study that never seems to get lost in recklessness, choosing to focus on several people and exploring their inner structures with a laser focus. Seemingly shallow people are revealed to have oceans of depth, internal struggles and pain that may never leave their bodies. It is gripping, it is entertaining and simply put, it is unforgettable.
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