Magnolia is the unconventional, but undeniably ambitious third film from director Paul Thomas Anderson and though it is arguably one of his most inspired outings, with its 3+ hour running time, disjointed storytelling, and often heavy melodrama, it is far from perfect and may not appeal to everyone.
Earl Partridge is a wealthy television producer on his death bed who wants only to make peace with his estranged son Frank T.J. Mackey before he dies. While his nurse desperately tries to track Frank down, Earl’s young, emotionally unbalanced trophy wife Linda begins to feel regret for her marital indiscretions and realizes that she truly has love for her husband after all. Meanwhile, Jimmy Gator, the host of one of Partridge’s game shows, attempts to reconnect with his drug-abusing daughter Claudia after discovering he has terminal cancer. Unable to forgive her pedophile father, Claudia lets her life spiral out of control until she meets Jim, a socially awkward, by-the-books police officer. On set at the What Do Kids Know? game show, the child genius Stanley struggles to get the attention and respect he deserves from those around him. Across town, his prodigal predecessor Donnie, now all grown up, experiences similar problems of being unnoticed and unloved by his bartending crush. These non-sequitur stories appear to flow tangentially, but strangely converge both structurally and thematically in the end tying each of these supposed strangers together.
Making full use of its superb ensemble cast of diverse characters scattered throughout five different, but simultaneous storylines, Magnolia fruitfully explores the depths of loneliness, human imperfection, and the weight of emotional luggage with sophisticated style and purpose. Despite the vastly different stories, the characters are all entangled through their relationships with each other and united by isolation in its various forms.
Where Magnolia most succeeds is not necessarily in its art-film qualities (i.e. the meta sing along, the raining frogs, etc.) but in its interesting stories and unique characters brought to life by quality performances from the stellar cast. Tom Cruise in particular stands out as Frank T.J. Mackey, the overly charismatic and chauvinistic self-help sex-guru whose façade begins to crumble under the scrutiny of a nosy journalist. Hoffman, Macy, and Reilly also deliver excellent heartfelt performances, though Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Linda Partridge often feels oddly excessive and over-the-top at times. P.T. Anderson has a way of capturing the human condition in a way that very few modern directors can; there is such a degree of realism and truth to his characters that they feel like people you’ve known in your own life. Their emotions and faults and desires ring organically true, and never feel forced. Magnolia doesn’t always work on every level it attempts to operate on, and it wanes a little toward the end of its lengthy running time, but it’s a film that was made with a lot of ambition and attention to detail, and in the end it really shows.
Magnolia’s 1080p VC-1 transfer looks quite striking overall, most notably in the brightly lit and colorful game show scenes. As a whole, the colors are subtle, but true to life and not overly vibrant. The flesh tones are warm without being to reddish and since the cinematographer chose to use a lot of close-ups throughout the movie, and you can really see the fine detail in the actors’ faces. The contrast levels are excellent as well and there’s very little appearances made by any grain or noise which is a triumph considering how much of the film is shot at in the evening/night time.
Magnolia is a dialogue heavy film, but the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Digital soundtrack is put to surprisingly good use. The voices are crisp and the rain (both water and frogs) will make you feel like you’re caught in a thunderstorm contained squarely in your living room.
The musical score compliments the film quite well, though it is at times a bit intrusive and overwhelming, sometimes drowning out the dialogue with its intensity. However, the sing-along that occurs about halfway through is an interesting and beautiful musical choice that ties everyone’s lives together in a unique moment of crushing meta loneliness.
Something is always better than nothing, and that’s exactly what’s packaged with Magnolia: something. There’s not a ton materials to sink you’re teeth into — no deleted scenes, commentary, gallery, blooper reel, etc. — but the little that is included (about an hour and a half of worthwhile stuff) is entertaining enough. I guess you could consider it quality over quantity in practice. Features include:
Magnolia Video Diary
An in depth featurette documenting the conception and making of Magnolia. Not only do we get behind-the-scenes looks at production meetings, on set shoots, and table reads, but we also get a lot of one-on-one interviews with P.T. Anderson himself as he talks about his motivations and fears with writing and shooting a film like Magnolia. It’s a nice summation of what making the film and working with P.T.A. is like.
Frank TJ Mackey Seminar and Seduce and Destroy Infomercial
Extended Seduce and Destroy seminar scenes with Tom Cruise. Being that the Mackey’s storyline was easily the most enthralling part of the movie, having extended footage of it is a real treat, however brief it may be.
Amiee Mann Music Video and Trailers/TV Spots
Nothing too exciting here, just a music video of Aimee Mann’s Save Me as well as several original TV spots and trailers for the film.
Magnolia certainly proves to be a one-of-a-kind film; its unique structure, bold storytelling devices, and sheer ambition make it a film worth admiring from an artistic standpoint and its interesting characters keep it mostly compelling for its entire 3 hours. Though it often borders on melodrama, it’s a film worth owning for both fans of the powerhouse that is P.T. Anderson and the drama genre.