March 01, 2009


Unity of Opposites
P.T. Anderson Shuffles The Cards of Estranged Kindred Synthesis
By Cole Smithey

Colesmithey.comWriter/director P.T. Anderson proves not only that he is no one-hit wonder ("Boogie Nights") with his latest screen effort, but that he is a master of pithy dialogue and dynamic juxtaposition of character. In his third feature, the director brilliantly sets apart ten characters who support and oppose each other in revealing set-pieces, confirming the film's loosely optimistic leitmotif that "strange things happen all the time."

Descendants against parents, adults against kids, bosses oppose employees, counter help battles customers, cancer destroys life, fame fights anonymity — these are just a few of the conflicts that Anderson frames to push his characters over the brink of socialized behavior.

Julianne Moore and Melinda Dillon ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind") are long suffering wives to their despicable cancer-dying husbands Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and quiz show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Cocaine addict Claudia (Melora Walters) and washed-up whiz kid Donnie (William H. Macy) are the damaged-goods offspring of cruel parents, while home nurse Phil Pharma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and policeman Jim (John C. Reilly) are pillars of compassion. Little Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is an optimist representing hope for the future in his willingness to speak out.


"Magnolia" is like Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" in that it polarizes audiences. For every audience member who walks out on "Magnolia" in disgust because he feels no compassion for its characters, there will be ten more in the audience who will spill loving praise on the level of intimacy Anderson achieves from his virtuoso cast. I suspect that the phenomenon is due primarily to "Magnolia’s" centerpiece sub-plot involving Tom Cruise as a misogynist crusader named Frank T.J. Mackey. Frank gives brutally male seminars entitled “Seduce and Destroy” that teach the underachieving male participants the power of "respecting the cock and taming the cunt."

Frank has effectively funneled his sense of confused familial loss and abandonment into a lucrative empire by espousing a system of conquering women from their most tender regions. Cruise is so compelling in his over-the-top motivational speeches that you can’t help feeling simultaneously repulsed and attracted. However, it’s when Frank is confronted by a prying black female television interviewer that his shields of defense mechanisms are exposed layer by crumbling layer.


P.T. Anderson’s acumen with juggling multiple characters is comparable to director Robert Altman’s expert ability to unify a broad scope of personality types. Like Altman, Anderson suffers from an unwillingness to edit his cinematic tapestries tightly, rather choosing to leave narrative remnants strewn about for added texture. For example, there is an unexplained sub-plot involving a murder and a little boy who performs an offensive self-penned rap song supposedly identifying the killer for police officer Jim. Gratuitous scenes like this one serve to water down the film's overall emotional impact.


With one good final edit "Magnolia" could have been a perfect movie. All of the actors give exceptionally genuine performances. But part of the glory of the film’s strength resides in its shortcomings. There is an excess of information that gestures toward fathomable depths of characters acting from alternately secure to tragically unstable centers of resolve. In the difficult challenge that Anderson has set up for himself as a social satirist lies a mirror of desire and fulfillment that his characters strive for in ways that are every bit as flawed and suggestible as human nature. Just as something so reliably surprising as the weather can modify people’s behavior, "Magnolia" encompasses an inter-connective human bond that accepts reality’s blind spots. Purity of intention, as the story suggests, is a happy accident that can hit everyone.

Rated R. 188 mins. (A-) (Four stars)

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