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In 2007, I sat in a movie theater, watching There Will Be Blood. I knew two things about it: it was about oil and it featured a performance from Daniel Day-Lewis that everyone was talking about. Obviously, the film turned out to be about a lot more than oil and Day-Lewis ended up walking away with another Oscar. It was my introduction to Paul Thomas Anderson, but I didn't really have the drive to see the rest of his films until fairly recently. Anticipation for The Master is probably at its highest level now, after triumphant screenings in Vienna and Toronto. It's finally set to hit theaters in the US this month, and with that in mind, I dived head first into the world of PT Anderson.
While Boogie Nights announced Anderson as a major filmmaker, his 1999 epic Magnolia cemented that status. Calling the film complex is almost an understatement. At three hours long, there are nine main characters whose stories are weaved together to tell a tale of circumstances, the price of their decisions and what happens when unexpected events change all that. This is not a film of episodes and in an early scene in the video diary included on the DVD and Blu-ray, Anderson says that the film would not work if it was more than one story, where you could pull one scene out and it would still work.
Magnolia starts with a narrator going over a series of urban legends that highlight the role of coincidences, whereby a single choice lands a person in the wrong spot. That sets us up for Anderson's story of coincidences in modern day Los Angeles. It opens with a magnificent montage that introduces us to the characters whose lives will change over the next day.
What impresses me about the montage is that it shows the isolation that all these characters are in – a point made so obvious by Anderson's use of Harry Nilsson's “One,” performed by Aimee Mann. It's economical, telling the audience everything we need to know about these characters' mundane lives before they change forever. By making a three-hour film that never gets bogged down in exposition, that means it moves amazingly fast. That alone is a testament to Anderson's skill as a screenwriter and makes it even harder to believe that he lost the Oscar to Alan Ball's screenplay for American Beauty.
Aside from Anderson's ability to direct and put this entire puzzle together, the performances by every single one of these actors is stunning. Even Tom Cruise, who was nominated for Supporting Actor, pulls off a shocking performance, considering this was made just after he finished his restrained, nuanced performance in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Cruise (who is introduced by “Thus Spake Zathustra” - another example of Anderson's quirky humor) plays the exuberant Frank T.J. Mackey, a man who sells self-help guides to men who want sex. His father turns out to be Earl Partidge, the last role for the great Jason Robards.
The film also stars Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and Melora Walters. The cast Anderson assembled for this film just fit their roles perfectly. Reilly just looks like a lonely cop in search of love, while Macy plays this wonderfully desperate Z-list celebrity. (Macy trying to explain why he needs money for braces he doesn't really need is hilarious – knowing why he wants the braces makes the scene even more pathetic.)
The most poignant story is Stanley Spector, a child prodigy on the quiz show Hall hosts and played by Jeremy Blackman. Here's a kid trying to run from the overbearing expectations of a father, while the adults in this story try to live up to their own expectations.
Magnolia's greatness really comes from its operatic nature, as if it was a perfect piece of music conducted by a master craftsman. It's a film that really speaks for itself and begs for multiple viewings. Magnolia is a great film and will likely go down as Anderson's best film.