Magnolia: Work of Genius or Celluloid Disaster?
I just rewatched Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia. The first time I saw it, I hated it. I walked out of the theater cursing his name for wasting my time. Since then, I’ve grown to really appreciate PT Anderson’s work, so I decided to give it another go. After rewatching it, I think I enjoyed it a little bit more than the first time. Did I like it this time? Read on.
PT Anderson is a fine writer and director, and I’m quite a big fan of Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood. Magnolia is not a terrible film; far from it. I just didn’t like it. Below, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of the movie.
The rest of this review is spoiler heavy, so if you haven’t seen the movie (and are interested in doing so), stop reading here. If you have seen the movie or you don’t care about spoilers, please proceed. First, the “Pros.”
- This is a beautiful film to watch. The cinematography is gorgeous, the pacing is tight, and the acting is superb across the board. Anderson and company succeed in making Los Angeles a dark, dismal place to match the mood of the film. If you’ve spent much time in LA, you know it’s typically very warm and sunny so this could not have been an easy feat.
- The introductory scene is well constructed and very intriguing. It had me hooked both times I’ve watched this movie. The three stories of chance and coincidence are a perfect introduction to the larger story of interconnectedness. I just wish it had paid off in a more satisfying way.
- The cast. Everyone is in this movie. Along with the fantastic leads (Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman), there is a parade of veteran actors and (then) up-and-comers: Doc Ock, Agent Coulson, John C. Reilly, Nazi Uncle Jack, Mr. Bookman (the Library Detective), Ralphie’s mom. I can’t name one actor who doesn’t turn in a stellar performance. William H. Macy is especially pitiful. Has Tom Cruise ever been better?
- Most of the stories are interesting. Anderson takes 8 or 9 different story threads and weaves them together masterfully. I really like the idea of each character being involved in at least two different stories. It shows life as a web of interactions, and not just a linear series of events. My favorite story is the quiz show. The father of the wiz-kid (Nazi Uncle Jack from Breaking Bad) is a quietly despicable character, and the child actors are all very good. This sequence doesn’t tell you about the dark side of the entertainment industry, it shows you.
- It’s way too long. It clocks in at over three hours. I don’t mind long movies if the duration is necessary for the plot to unfold properly, but as Magnolia isn’t really a movie with a linear plot, it didn’t need to be so long. I thought a couple of the stories were a bit repetitive and could have been trimmed for a shorter run-time. Seriously, how many characters admitted to cheating in this movie? After the third confession, I was thinking, “Okay, I get it. People are unfaithful. Move on.”
- Everyone cries. It’s melodramatic and repetitive. It loses it’s impact because there’s too much crying.
- The sing-along scene is awful. Like, God-awful. The song is Save Me by Aimee Mann, which I’ve embedded. I don’t have a problem with the song, it’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching song. The problem is again, it’s very melodramatic. It also took me out of the story; it doesn’t fit with the tone and style of the movie up to this point. I think a few of the characters even broke the fourth wall and looked right at the camera while they were singing. Blech.
- Of course, I must touch on the ending. This is the con that decidedly flips me from liking this movie to hating it. It’s incredibly stupid. Raining frogs? It’s unexpected, yes. But it’s just weird. I like weird; after all, I’m a big sci-fi/fantasy nerd. Doctor Who, for example, is extremely weird, but it’s consistently weird compared to our daily lives. Raining frogs just doesn’t fit in a film universe that is otherwise pretty similar to ours. Hated the ending.
For me, two scenes completely ruined my enjoyment of this movie: the sing-along and the stupid, STUPID ending. Despite all the good in this film, and there is a lot to enjoy, I can’t recommend it. If you want to get into PT Anderson, start with There Will Be Blood and skip this one.
Story: ★★ ½ of 5 (Would be higher if not for the frogs.)
Drama: ★★★★ of 5
Acting: ★★★★★ of 5
Visuals: ★★★ of 5
Overall: ★★★ ½ of 5
What do you think? Is my assessment accurate or way off? Do you love or hate this film? What do you think of PT Anderson’s other work? Leave me a comment, let’s discuss.
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