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Review: 'Magnolia' -- in Robert Altman we trust

December 17, 1999
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EST (1730 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Robert Altman has such a singular approach to directing movies that other filmmakers are asking for trouble if they attempt to too vigorously work his side of the street. But they keep trying.

Paul Thomas Anderson's ambitious, sprawling mess of a film "Magnolia" is Altman-esque in every sense of the word. Which is to say that it fluctuates wildly between great, crazy and nearly intolerable. "Altman-esque" is one of those film-critic adjectives -- like "Capra-esque" and "Hitchcockian" -- that implies a lot more than you usually end up seeing on the screen.

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Boiled down to its essence, an Altman-esque film has anywhere from 10 to 20 main characters; multiple plot threads that seem virtually unrelated until the final 15 minutes; a running time of nearly three hours; and a loopy sense of timing that allows for tons of rambling dialogue and oddball psychological quirks. It's a rich stew, and Altman makes the coolest films you've ever seen when he gets the ingredients right.

"M*A*S*H" (1970), "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), "The Long Goodbye" (1973), "California Split" (1974), "Nashville" (1975), "The Player" (1992) and chunks of "Short Cuts" (1993) are vivid, provocative tapestries of the American experience. But that 17-year gap between "Nashville" and "The Player" says a lot. The balance of this kind of film is so precarious that Altman himself botches it more often than he succeeds. And when he botches it, he does so with a vengeance.

"Magnolia" is Anderson's follow-up to his 1997 hit "Boogie Nights." That movie, although too long and too indebted to Martin Scorsese's visual sense, is a tremendously entertaining film that holds up the porn industry as a microcosm of modern American life. Just as he did in "Boogie Nights," Anderson wrings startling performances from most his "Magnolia" cast members.

But the restrictions of dissecting only porn usually held him in check with "Boogie Nights." This time, he's reaching for existential angst. And there aren't clear-cut parameters when it comes to that concept. He ends up with a swirling series of sometimes inconsequential tangents, a number of which would have been better off lying on the editing room floor.


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Cast of thousands

There's so much going on here that the best approach is to simply list the characters and tell you what each one's particular problem is. As in "Short Cuts," from which Anderson obviously takes most of his cues, these people are uniformly miserable.

  • Earl Partridge (Jason Robards): Bedridden, Earl is dying of cancer and wants to be reunited with his long-estranged son before meeting his maker. Robards is one of the finest actors in the world, and he gives another moving performance here as a man wracked with spiritual as well as physical pain. He's so good, it's sometimes hard to watch him.

  • Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore): Earl's wife Linda finds that she's finally falling in love with her husband just as he's dying. She married Earl solely for his money, but now realizes that he's her badly needed lifeline. Moore's innate sexiness is often drowned by Linda's gloomy self-absorption. It gives her room to experiment. Anderson allows her to overheat a lot, and she does it dramatically. But the character is often more shrill than tortured.

  • Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise): Frank is a pumped-up TV self-help guru. But his self-help is also self-centered. He's a distastefully narcissistic expert on how to seduce and dump women in the cruelest manner possible. Whooping groups of chauvinist pigs pay thousands of dollars for Frank's profane guidance.

    Cruise is nearly unwatchable in what has to be the most grating "performance" of his career. He's always been one to confuse staring laser beams through his fellow actors with thespian passion. But Frank looks like he's constantly lifting weights, even when he's just sitting there. It can drive you nuts after a couple of scenes, especially given the high quality the other performances. Kudos to Cruise for appearing in an ensemble cast, but he's not about to let anybody forget that he's Tom Terrific, the big fat movie star. The results are plain old obnoxious.

  • Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman): Stanley is a child genius who's become a minor celebrity as the star of a popular TV quiz show. He hates his father for making him participate in the media circus, but Stanley is probably the most expendable character in the script. God only knows why he's there. He certainly doesn't accomplish much, aside from serving as a reflection of one character's past experience.

  • Donnie Smith (William H. Macy): Donnie was the star of Stanley's quiz show back in the 1960s, when he was just a kid. Now, however, he's a world-class schmuck. He's sexually repressed and can't even hold down a simple job at an electronics store. People are constantly recognizing him as "that smart kid from TV," although he's now in his mid-40s and doesn't know a damned thing about forging a proper adult existence.

    Macy plays losers as well as anyone in the world, and Donnie is a meaty character. His desperate robbery of his former employers is so ill-advised that even he starts to wonder why he did it two minutes after he's done. Macy is spectacular and is one of the bravest actors we've got. He wallows in his characters' ineptitude as much as Cruise shouts out his characters' world-beating strength.

  • Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall): The weary, heavy-drinking host of the quiz show, Jimmy is also diagnosed with terminal cancer and suddenly has to come to terms with his own mortality. Hall is especially good with slow-moving panic, and his craggy features serve him well. Jimmy is one of the film's more complex characters. He eventually has to admit to some horrific missteps during his life. The anguish keeps mounting through the film, and Jimmy gets more than his fair share.

  • Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters): Jimmy's estranged daughter (you can see how unrelated stories bounce off of each other in key ways), Claudia is a coke head who's too wired to acknowledge when people are concerned for her well-being. She also gets irritating a little too often. But she turns out to be one of the more blessed characters before it's all over.

  • Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly): The heart and soul of the entire story, Jim is a kind, somewhat dimwitted protector of the public. He skips through the story line as one of the few characters who really wants to help someone beside himself. There's an amusing core of decency to Jim that often keeps the film anchored when things threaten to spin out of control.

    Reilly is astonishing. He finds unexpected tenderness in the character, and his fumbling declarations of integrity come from somewhere deep inside Officer Kurring. You walk away remembering more about this performance than anything else in the movie. "Magnolia" establishes Reilly as one of our premiere character actors. It's one of the best performances of the year.

  • Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Hoffman fully redeems himself after surprisingly mundane work in the recently released "Flawless." Phil is Earl Partridge's at-home caretaker, and the person responsible for locating his estranged son. Hoffman spends most of his time responding to Robards' death-rattle soliloquies; he almost seems to take the old man's pain into himself as he listens. This is a rather small role, but one that makes an indelible imprint. Hoffman, like Reilly, is the conscience of a story that badly needs one.



    Dying early

    The film opens with a series of antiseptically shot depictions of bizarre, somehow enlightening deaths. A narrator describes, for instance, a young man who jumps off the roof of his apartment building, only to be shot accidentally by his mother as he plummets past his parents' living room window. The man falls into some construction netting at the base of the building. It would have broken his fall, so he'd be alive had he not been shot.

    The mother ends up in jail for murdering her son while he was attempting to kill himself. The narrator wonders if this conflux of events was a coincidence or if, in the cosmic scheme of things, it was somehow meant to happen.

    This seems to be the central question of the brilliant but baffling "Magnolia."

    A biblical plague that befalls Los Angeles near the end of the film (to say any more would lessen the considerable shock and fun of it) seems to be God's way of paying off accumulated debts. You always hurt the one you love. And, according to Anderson, you'll eventually have to answer for it.

    "Magnolia" is pretty potty-mouthed, but realistically so. There's blunt talk about sex and sexual abuse, and there are instances of on-screen coupling. It's a challenging film with lots of flaws. The flaws, however, arise from presenting an ambitious chunk of ideas. Rated R. 179 minutes ... too long again.

    "Magnolia" is a production of CNN Interactive sister company New Line Cinema, a Time Warner property.

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