By Christian DiMartino
Chances are, anybody who has seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia has had… some reaction to it. Released in 1999, the film opened to reviews that were all over the place. Some thought it to be an absolute mess; some thought it to be a masterpiece; some thought it to be 2/3rd’s of a masterpiece, before combusting in the final act. Despite the polarization, Magnolia still placed second on Roger Ebert’s list of the best films of 1999, and was also nominated for three Oscars including Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (for Tom Cruise) and Best Original Song.
I was alive when the film was released, but was, well, three years old. I wouldn’t catch Magnolia until 2010, when I was in the 7th grade. What were you watching in the 7th grade? I know that The Twilight Saga was unfortunately a thing when I was in the 7th grade. People around me the following school year were going gaga over movies like Grown Ups, and here I was enamored with movies like Being John Malkovich, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Boogie Nights. Admitted, all of this makes me, then and now, sound unbelievably pretentious. You might not be wrong, but I didn’t see myself as above my peers, but rather, I just wish that my peers could see what I was seeing… in terms of movies.
Magnolia hit me differently though. Watching this film for the first time, it felt as if it unlocked something new in me. It helped me see filmmaking from a different perspective. Movies are meant, first and foremost, to entertain. What Magnolia has to offer might not be to everyone’s liking, and that’s perfectly okay- people like what they like. 7th grade me? This movie left me mesmerized in so many ways for three hours straight. From beginning to end, even when I had no bloody clue what on earth that ending was (more on that later), it’s a film that held such a tremendous impact on me that I watched it again… and again… and again… and again, and only gave it a break out of fear that I would grow tired of it. Truth is, I haven’t. Yet also, perhaps what had such an impact on me was the fact that it had a huge reach- it’s a film dripping with ambition- and quite frankly, I was left floored by the way in which Anderson takes this gigantic storyline and somehow managed to make it even bigger and grander. After seeing it 28 times, it definitely crept it’s way up to the top of my list of my favorite films. Mind you, I’m a 7th grader, but whew, my love for this movie was so strong that whenever one of my best friends broke my VHS copy of it on accident, I wept like a psychopath. It’s an incident he held above me for many years, and… yeah with good reason.
How frustrating it was to talk about this magnum opus with people who hadn’t seen it. That being said, what normal 7th grader sits around and watches a three hour drama about miserable people confronting their past and present over the course of a day? People around me were probably playing basketball or something, and here I was, perhaps the sole 7th grade soul who had seen this cinematic goldmine.
Magnolia had such a lasting impact on me that, for many years, it remained my favorite movie. Here’s the thing though: this was 11 years ago. My knowledge of film has strengthened quite a bit during that time, or I like to believe so. So it’s really difficult to even DECIDE on a favorite movie. What hasn’t changed though, and what was sparked by my obsession with Magnolia, is my firm admiration for filmmaking itself. Not just in terms of the writing and the acting, which in this film’s case is marvelous, but in the cinematography, score, you name it.
So this brings me to 24 year old me. I like to show my roommate movies that are absolute musts in my eyes, and not to toot my own horn but I think I’ve done a good job. His brother came over last night and since we had three hours to burn, I suggested Magnolia, which we’d discussed showing his brother. Let me tell ya: re-watching this again was, in a strange way, like watching it again for the first time, except with time I’ve had more time to mature and feel and get a firmer grip on the film itself… and let me tell ya, 7th grade me felt alive and well.
Perhaps it’s crazy that, of all movies, Magnolia would be at the top of my list. Shoot, most people claim it to be middle-tier Anderson, and that There Will Be Blood is his true masterpiece. They wouldn’t be wrong, since it is a masterpiece, but I’m Team Magnolia. Why? Oh, so many reasons.
Even watching Magnolia for the 82nd time, dammit, I was mesmerized. Anderson’s film is filled with rich characters, each of their storylines pretty fascinating. Fascinating in themselves, but also fascinating in the way that they unfold. “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us,” is a line repeated a few times, and this is essentially what Anderson is conveying through these characters. Each character in Magnolia, with exception of John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, has either been affected by their past, or is coming to terms with the grave mistakes previously made. Yet through this one day, we learn of these mistakes and their impacts, and how each of these characters must come to terms with the past, so then they can face the present and the future. It’s a huge, complexly real idea, and yet it’s beautifully moving and if this doesn’t hold your interest, I don’t know who you are.
So yes, all of that, but I guess I could dive into the plot. The film finds a group of people living in San Fernando Valley over the course of one very rainy day. We have Claudia (Melora Walters), a coke addict who meets a cop, Jim (Reilly), and both of which are so affected by their insecurities that they choose to not see the truth about one another. Claudia’s dad, Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall) hosts a kid’s game show that is airing this very day, with a young child genius (Jeremy Blackman) who is currently winning. The producer of said show is Earl (Jason Robards), who is on his deathbed and longs to see his very estranged son, Frank TJ Mackey (Cruise), who runs womanizing seminars.
That’s just some of what is going on. Believe me, there is a lot, and yet, despite the fact that Anderson recently called the film “mercilessly long,” it really doesn’t feel like it. The performances truly keep us in the film’s grip. Reilly and Hoffman are perfect as perhaps the only two normal people at the center of the story; Julianne Moore is a nutty wonder as Earl’s gold-digging wife. Yet the best one of all, in the role of a lifetime, is Cruise. He received a Pass for Life from me after seeing this film. The fact that Cruise didn’t win the Oscar for this film still disturbs me to this day. From beginning to end, this character brings out so many reactions from us, and yet he also just brings out so many emotions in general. We see this man’s confidence; we loathe it. We see this man’s pain; despite the loathing, we feel it. It’s acting so damned powerful that, in his final moments onscreen, he even made Hoffman cry. Which couldn’t be easy, because that man was rock solid.
This has been a lot of rambling, so my apologies. Yet watching this film again, my love for it strengthened and deepened all over again. In fact, I think I love just about everything about it. Its ideas are rich and complex, and yet beautifully developed to the point where, yeah, its three hour runtime is earned. It’s so much movie, but to me it’s all so amazing. The writing, the directing, the acting. Jon Brion’s score is an unsung hero here too, as is the cinematography from Robert Elswitt, which swirls and twirls constantly but really makes us feel like what we’re watching is a ride (because it is. Gotta love those songs by Aimee Mann too, what a voice. Yet perhaps what always struck a chord with me about Magnolia is its audacity. There are those out there who claim that the film falls apart in the third act, and it all depends on whether or not you’re willing to follow Anderson’s strange, brilliant vision. I do, I did, and I love it. Some may be thrown off by the scene in which the central cast sings Mann’s Wise Up. I can’t get enough it, not just because it’s a beautiful scene but also because it’s a great song. Then, there’s that ending, which more than likely left some thinking the film was nonsense. Truth is, if you see this film (at my recommendation) and you are baffled by the ending, do some investigation. It’s well worth it, and truthfully, I loved the ending of Magnolia before the research because, truth be told, I’d never seen anything like it. Anderson gives off the notion that the storylines will all come together in some grand finale, and they do… but they don’t… but they do.
We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us. Magnolia once played a huge part in my past. That part being that it just might be the film that truly made me fall in love with movies. Turns out, I’m not through with the past either, and I may never be through with Magnolia. Let’s be real though: why would I want to be?