Paul Thomas Anderson’s examination of dysfunctional relationships set in Los Angeles, is spread across a cast of characters too real for the movies. These characters — the game show host, the dying man, the motivational speaker, the child prodigy, the has been, among others — are all connected in some small way. You may have heard that this film is a lot like Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” but frankly, it’s completely different on every level . The only connection it has to Altman’s film is that it is set in Los Angeles and it does follow seemingly separate stories, but those are the only two points of comparison. Anderson’s film is an original and a joy to watch, when it doesn’t drag (more on this later).
“Magnolia” spins multiple tales of heartache and melancholy. The cast is filled with familiar faces from “Boogie Nights” including Julianne Moore (redhead, freckled, usually seen naked but not in this movie), Philip Seymour Hoffman (chubby, affable, funny, born to play Harry Knowles in his inevitable bio-pic), William H. Macy (damn good actor in any movie) and John C. Reilly (partner in porn in BN who doesn’t appear in nearly enough films). They all turn in amazing performances and should receive some type of recognition as the best ensemble cast of the year. However, the standout performance actually comes from Tom Cruise. Yeah, I’m just as shocked as you. Cruise makes up for all the sins of his acting career when he utters the immortal words, “Respect the c – – k and tame the c – – t.” Cruise plays Frank Mackey, a motivational speaker who teaches roomfuls of rowdy men how to get laid. His best-selling book is “Seduce and Destroy,” which instructs men in the ways of “how to fake being nice.” (Which is exactly what Cruise does for a living as an actor, right?) Cruise’s 27 minutes of screentime is by far the most compelling story as he must come to terms with his dying, dirtbag father played by Jason Robards.
The characters are so real, that even after this film is done unspooling, somewhere in some alternate universe I believe these characters exist. The musical score by Aimee Mann was apparently a source of inspiration to writer/director Anderson. According to liner notes on the soundtrack CD, Anderson listened to early demo tracks of Mann’s music and lifted a line or two of her lyrics for dialog. It’s easy to understand why as Mann’s emotional riffs are the soul of this picture.
There is, however, one flaw that stands out amidst this compelling, multiple character study and that is the running time. Parts of “Magnolia” drag because of scenes that are really not all that important. The last major domestically released film to feature an intermission was Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” back in 1982. I would encourage filmmakers with movies that have a three-hour plus running time to seriously consider including an intermission. If you have to, fight for the intermission to be included as part of the program. Heck, you’ll sell more refreshments during the break. (Otherwise, please cut the film into a modest two hours and save those extra scenes for the DVD release.)
The return of the intermission is kind of a personal crusade because it’s nearly impossible for me to go without a bathroom break for a movie with even a moderate running time. In fact, I can’t sit still for even a two-hour movie, much less a three-hour film. This has to do with the fact that I was born with only one kidney, which is incredibly rare. It also means that I have to urinate three times more than the average person. This makes me a mutant. I’m kind of like one of the X-Men, except without the superpower. I generally have at least one bathroom break for any film that I see, and for a long film, I’m screwed. So you see, I really need that intermission. “Magnolia” would be much improved with that little break.
Despite the running time, “Magnolia” is a bold move for Anderson, an amazing display of acting for Tom Cruise, and one of the best films of 1999.