Culture Your Ass: “Magnolia”

Written by Joey Simpson January 11, 2012

The best fiction seldom sets itself out to be a grand, metaphysical investigation of the human condition and answer the big philosophical questions. For most, these observations are thinly veiled within the stories of a hero and their trials: the morally ambiguous P.I. in film noir, the ambitious but tortured conqueror in a historical epic.

But so few films set out to examine human beings as directly and uniquely as Paul Thomas Ansderson’s Magnolia.  At a more than three hour running-time, Anderson does not waste a second as he crafts a film that examines human weakness and flaw through the interconnected lives of nine San Fernando Valley residents; a film whose epic scale is off-set by the simplistic, intimate lives it examines.

Magnolia is a story told in nine individual, yet interconnected, plots which describes the events of one day in San Fernando Valley, with the set of a children’s game show as the combining force among them. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), producer of the hit show What Do Kids Know?, is dying of cancer and is nursed by Phil Pharma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His final request is to reconnect with his estranged son, motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise). Earl’s wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), experiences great regret for having married Earl for his money and for numerous infidelities. In a concurrent plot, the host of What Do Kids Know?, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is also dying of cancer and seeks to reconcile with his wife Rose (Melinda Dillonand daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), who is courted throughout the film by police officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). The film also depicts current contestant Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) and past contestant Donnie Smith (William H. Macy).

Anderson masterfully joins all of the film’s many plots and characters together, leaving few (if any) points unresolved in the process. In the process he tells a magnanimous story about regret, isolation, and the harrows of failed relationships, particularly in father-child relationships.

The film is written so poignantly that no one actor stands out in their own right; the players mesh and compliment one another as an ensemble. Even actors known for more mainstream roles (i.e. John C. Reily and Tom Cruise) adapt and immerse themselves perfectly in their roles. With biblical allusions, many plots, and overall unique style, an analysis of Magnolia can go in multiple directions.

Magnolia is spectacular because it is so bold and unconventional, as well as deep. Some have argued that a serious film that defies certain logical barriers with metaphor (Take the last scene from The Last Emperor for example) cannot be taken seriously at the risk of being critical fluff. But Magnolia is certainly the opposite. Yes, it defies logic. But it does so only to improve the scope in which the film views human life through. Paul Thomas Anderson writes and directs a film that is both epic and intimate, while unabashedly proclaiming to make a film about life itself; a feat that would be cheezy in less adept hands.

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