Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 8, 2010)
Jump forward decades from now and take a look back on the 1990s: which filmmakers who emerged in that decade do you believe will be regarded as genuine, long-lasting talents? Back in 2000, I placed my bets on David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson, creators of some of the most fresh and exciting movies of the 1990s.
Although he had already made a fine debut effort via 1996's Hard Eight, Anderson really broke onto the scene in 1997 with Boogie Nights, a daring and creative journey into the life of a fictional porn star. Nights created quite a stir, and though it featured quite a few flaws, it definitely offered a genuinely entertaining and compelling ride.
Although 1999's Magnolia was Anderson's third film, it really was his second in one regard, that of the "sophomore jinx". That phenomenon is most commonly associated with recording artists; lots of acts who release successful first albums encounter a great deal of trouble with their second attempts. This makes sense, since they had their whole lives to build up and refine quality material for that initial release, but the second one forced them to start from nothing.
Filmmakers also are affected by this phenomenon because of greater expectations. When one releases a first film - or an early work that causes a stir, as with Nights - one projects it into a void; audiences and critics have little or no work by that artist against which to compare the movie. However, the follow-up doesn't exist on its own, and it'll be contrasted with the person's initial success.
As he mentions during this disc's supplements, Anderson recognized this and set to work on a new film pretty soon after Nights hit the screens. I thought that was a good sign to indicate his priorities. He knew that his next movie would be crucial to his artistic development and while he could have simply basked in the positive glow of his hit, he instead did the opposite to attempt to ensure it wouldn't be his only success.
Does Anderson achieve his goals in Magnolia? Yes, I think so. Is it better than Boogie Nights? No, but it's not worse, either; really, it's different, and though the films feature some significant similarities, comparisons between the two aren't tremendously clear-cut.
Nights easily offers the more visceral, kinetic, rootin'-tootin' experience. From its showy opening scene in the nightclub, it grabs you by the neck, shakes you around and kicks you in the pants. It's a terrific statement from a filmmaker in that the movie's power makes it impossible to ignore.
Magnolia takes a very different route, as it's a much more quiet and contemplative affair. It's also more difficult to get a handle on the movie. I didn't see it during its theatrical run - I wanted to, but it was one of those "just didn't get around to it" flicks - and I feel that the one viewing I've had is insufficient to really get a grasp on the film's nuances.
However, it seemed clear that Anderson pursued many of the same themes seen in Nights and Hard Eight, for that matter. I don't know much about Anderson's familial relationships, but he sure does seem obsessed with their interactions, especially in a dysfunctional way. All of his movies portray sad, lonely, disaffected folks who are either strongly alienated from kin or who have other significant issues. Nights and Eight were about finding family and belonging wherever one can, and though
Magnolia concerns itself more closely with blood relations, it still shows characters who are generally in pursuit of love and acceptance.
Anderson tends to wear his influences on his sleeve. Just as Nights strongly emulated Scorsese's GoodFellas, Magnolia takes a lot of cues from Robert Altman's Nashville. Frankly, I didn't care for that last film, for although I admired its ambition - it attempted to feature 24 "major" characters, although that number was a crock, since some roles barely existed - I found the execution to feel scattered and gimmicky.
Magnolia doesn't try to spread itself as thin; as such, it succeeds to a much fuller extent. I may incur the wrath of Altman's fans, but I felt Magnolia provided a much more tight and coherent film; unlike Nashville, it actually has a script and a storyline, not just lots of improvised guerrilla filmmaking.
By Nashville's definition of "major characters", there probably are 24 here, but Magnolia only focuses on nine of them. (Amusingly, Anderson casts two Nashville veterans - Henry Gibson and Michael Murphy - in minor roles here.) None of the parts can be considered the lead. Unlike Anderson's prior two films, there is no character that stands out as the "main" one. Instead, each participant forms an integral segment of the whole and helps create this mysteriously lovely picture.
On the liner notes of the old DVD, we're told that "Magnolia is a mosaic of American life woven through a series of comic and poignant vignettes. Through a collection of coincidence, chance, human action, shared media, past history and divine intervention, nine people will weave and warp through each other's lives on a day that builds to an unforgettable climax. Some will seek forgiveness, others escape. Some will mend frayed bonds, others will be exposed."
As pretentious as that paragraph sounds, it's essentially correct and probably summarizes Magnolia as well as anything. The film features no neat and tidy plot, as it simply focuses on the events of a single day. Actually, when you watch the movie, it seems hard to believe all of the action really is captured in one day. I've read reviews that discuss the different days of the piece, and I can't blame them for misinterpreting the scope, since the events feel like they happen over a longer period.
That doesn't mean that Magnolia comes across as forced or too large for its own good. While the danger exists for it to provide an unrealistic amount of revelation and drama for such a short period of time, the fact stands that nothing shown onscreen doesn't happen on a day-to-day basis. This doesn't mean that each of us experiences such life-affecting events every day of our existences, but Anderson doesn't say that we do. It just focuses on one day in which a lot happened to these particular people.
The film may stretch its premise due to the fact the episodes are interwoven, but I found his portrayal to be acceptably believable. After all, he doesn't attempt to wrap up events with a cute conclusion in which all of the characters end up at the same nightclub, or whatever, and he doesn't try to make all of them interact. You can play "Six degrees of Magnolia” and quickly and easily link the participants, but this isn't done in an overly tidy manner. It all makes sense and seems natural to me.
A couple other aspects of the plot blurb in the liner notes deserve mention. Some of the more-criticized parts of the story concern the "shared media" and the "divine intervention", as these sections of the film provide the picture's least realistic aspects. I don't want to discuss the actual content more fully since such an examination might provide potential spoilers, but let's just say that Anderson' choices are somewhat audacious.
But they work. Part of Anderson's gift is that he can offer unusual events in his films and make them seem not just believable and acceptable but also occasionally beautiful and poetic. The "shared media" falls into those categories, and the "divine intervention" has its oddly lovely moments as well. The latter provides what is undeniably one of the strangest movie endings I've seen, but somehow it feels "right" for this picture.
Magnolia isn't a perfect film, but warts and all, it's compelling and winning. Frankly, perfection is over-rated, and we see here that flaws can possess their own charms. Anderson makes more of an asset out of a negative than almost anyone, and as a result, his films are both endearing and memorable. Magnolia is a gem to be savored.