MAGNOLIA

Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson

With Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Phillip Baker Hall, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards and Melora Walters

***1/2


Whatever one thinks of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, his ambition can't be denied. BOOGIE NIGHTS used the porn industry as a microcosm of the changes America underwent in the late 70s and early 80s, and MAGNOLIA aspires to reinvent the melodrama for our cynical age. He's far from alone in this desire; Neil Jordan (with BOOGIE NIGHTS/MAGNOLIA star Julianne Moore in tow) and Pedro Almodovar have recently offered their versions of the melodrama. Both Jordan and Almodovar respect their elders: the former simulates an old-school English melodrama (with additional skin and sex) and the latter salutes half the human race in his closing credits. The most modern of the bunch, Anderson is suspicious of fathers (except maybe his obvious role models: Scorsese, Altman and Egoyan) and willing to let his storytelling mirror the ruptures and twists of chance - often facilitated by TV and telephones - his characters encounter.

The bulk of MAGNOLIA takes place within twenty-four hours in L.A.'s suburban San Fernando Valley. Although the characters don't come together quickly, their stories eventually converge around two dying patriarchs: Earl Partridge (Robards), a wealthy invalid married to a woman (Moore) half his age, and Jimmy Gator (Hall), a long-time game-show host recently diagnosed with cancer. As we eventually find out, both men have betrayed the trust of their children, whose lives - even as they push 40 and beyond - are still scarred by these betrayals. Earl's son, under the name of T. J. Mackey, has become...well, a mack, giving motivational lectures to horny geeks about the secrets of getting laid, including "how to fake like you're a nice, caring guy." (His slogan "respect the cock, tame the pussy" sums his act up pretty well. In real life, he'd either front a rap/metal band or have a guest slot on THE MAN SHOW.) Jimmy's cocaine-addicted daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) refuses to have anything to do with him, but her depression lightens when she meets Jim, a nice, lonely cop (John C. Reilly) who shows up in response to her neighbors' 911 call after a screaming match with her father. Boy genius/game show regular Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) represents the third generation, inevitably in the process of being screwed over by his parents.

Although MAGNOLIA is only Anderson's third film (in three years), his loose repertory company - even Luis Guzman and Alfred Molina show up here for bit parts - has helped push him out of the shadow of his influences. While he's always been a terrific director of actors, his visual style is still highly derivative and even his use of sound (especially music) owes a great deal to Altman and Scorsese, although he takes Altman's style to an extreme by overlapping the same soundtrack over different scenes as a counterpoint to visual editing . However, he seems completely in control of MAGNOLIA's rhythm and dynamics. At times, it races from one bombastic moment to the next in a flurry of cartwheeling pans and tracking shots and wall-to-wall music - Jon Brion's score, Aimee Mann's original songs, and "The Logical Song" by Supertramp, whom Anderson has apparently decided to resurrect from "classic rock" hell - but it's also full of stasis and silence.

Consequently, MAGNOLIA feels far more personal than BOOGIE NIGHTS. As entertaining as that film was, it got bogged down in the most limited kind of 70s nostalgia (a couch potato's vision of the decade as one long drug-fueled orgy in which all the fun turned ugly around the time he hit puberty) and a schematic screenplay which spent its final half punishing all its characters and then dragging them back from the gutter. In MAGNOLIA, Anderson is also much freer with direct displays of emotion, including plenty of material that more cynical spectators and filmmakers would see as soap opera. However, compared to the smug cynicism of HAPPINESS and AMERICAN BEAUTY (whose panoramic Middle Americana rests in the same ballpark as Anderson's), erring on the side of failed pathos, rather than safe irony, doesn't seem so terrible.

MAGNOLIA is a film constructed out of fragments and peak moments, and at its best, it suggests that Anderson could develop a whole new style, based largely on emotional links rather than narrative ones, were he willing to make his cross-cutting rhythms even more extreme. While beginning with its characters' lives in media res, it gradually explores their connections with the past and constructs extensive backstories. Unfortunately, some of these connections are forced: whole characters exist only to mirror other ones. (I can't see what purpose William H. Macy's bitter ex-whiz kid serves beyond functioning as a doppelganger to Stanley.) But some of them work beautifully, especially since Anderson has a rare ability to show his characters' facades breaking down in embarrassing situations without treating them cruelly. (Altman himself has never learned this.) Nevertheless, the third act's revelations sometimes break down into the obvious - needless to say, there's more to T. J. Mackie's macho act and contempt for women than meets the eye - and Anderson even uses the last-minute revelation of incest in the lazy manner I decried in last week's review of THE WAR ZONE.

Anderson could have made a masterpiece if he had the discipline to select only the best fragments and peaks of MAGNOLIA and string them together. Instead, his film alternates between deeply moving moments and flat stretches. Beyond his penchant for long films, there's no real reason for it to last three hours, and the cutesy framing device that wastes its first 10 minutes could have been just as effective (or even more so) chopped down to a 30-second voice-over. Even so, Anderson's structure preserves an air of mystery and suspense for the first 90 minutes, and he does justice to almost all the emotional payoffs that follow. While the opening falls flat, his other audacious ideas, like having most of the characters sing along - in separate scenes and locations - to the same Aimee Mann song and setting the final bursts of truth-telling and reconciliation against a creepy, Old Testament/Charles Fort-inspired backdrop, work like a charm. I don't think Anderson is close to rivaling his masters yet - as BOOGIE NIGHTS' biggest fans would claim he's already done - but he's improving so quickly that the potential for greatness is visible.