Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Melinda Dillon, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H Macy, Julianne Moore, John C Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters, Henry Gibson, Michael Bowen, April Grace, Luiz Guzman, Ricky Jay, Orlando James, Alfred Molina, Michael Murphy, Felicity Huffman, Emmanuel L Johnson, Don McManus, Eileen Ryan, Danny Wells, Brad Hunt, Cory Buck, Thomas Jane.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow up to his amazing Boogie Nights is an extraordinary, ambitious yet slightly flawed masterpiece that tackles some important themes. Magnolia explores how chance, coincidence and random occurrences can play a large part in shaping our lives, and how the past impacts on the present. Anderson also deals with larger themes of death, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Another common thread running through the film explores the psychological damage that fathers can, both knowingly and unknowingly, inflict on their children.

The action of this sprawling pseudo-epic takes place over the course of one inclement day in Los Angeles and follows nine principal characters, whose lives are inexorably linked.

Dying millionaire Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) wants to affect a final reconciliation with his estranged son (Tom Cruise). His wife (Julianne Moore), who initially married him for his money, is now tormented by her callousness and desperately seeks forgiveness. Other characters who play an important role in the drama unfolding include Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) a genial television quiz show host with a dark secret that has scarred his cocaine sniffing daughter Claudia (Melora Walters); Donnie Smith (William H Macy), a former child genius who has trouble coping with the adult world, his faded fame and his uncertain sexuality; and Jim Kurring (John C Reilly), an incompetent but basically decent cop who falls in love with the troubled and lonely Claudia.

An inexplicable phenomenon becomes the ultimate catalyst for change, redemption, reconciliation, salvation, and a new beginning for many of the characters.

Anderson is a wonderful and perceptive writer, with insight into his flawed characters and the vagaries of human nature. Some of the confrontations and intimate conversations between the various characters are revealing but uncomfortable. Cinematographer and regular collaborator Robert Elswit often works in close-up, which is often intimidating and uncomfortable, especially in wide screen, but somehow adds to the intimacy of many key scenes. But the camera fluidly weaves in and out of the various narrative strands, bringing the stories to life.

The characters are beautifully brought to life by the performances of the ensemble cast, many a familiar part of Anderson’s regular repertory company. The standout performance comes from Cruise, largely cast against type as a misogynistic, self-proclaimed self-help guru who empowers men in their difficult relationships with women. He is electrifying, and this ranks as one of his best performances. Moore is hysterically overwrought and shrill as Partridge’s younger wife, and her uncharacteristically uneven performance occasionally grates. Philip Seymour Hoffman (recently seen in The Talented Mr Ripley) delivers a sympathetic performance as Partridge’s devoted male nurse, one of the few constantly likeable characters in the whole film.

Although working on a vastly broader canvas than previously, Anderson directs the material with the same assurance he demonstrated on Boogie Nights. He pulls the various strands together with a clarity that has lately eluded Robert Altman, the past master of this sort of complex mosaic, and deftly constructed interlocking multi-layered narrative. However, the pacing is a little too languid at times, and there are many moments throughout that misfire awkwardly. The early sequences introduce us to the story and the myriad characters effectively enough, but the film tends to lose its way a little in the middle.

Like most three hour movies, Magnolia is overlong and self indulgent. There are several scenes that could have been trimmed and tightened, without diluting Anderson’s themes or lessening its devastating emotional impact.

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