Picked Flick #63: Magnolia
Hurl a stone in a contemporary movieplex and you're bound to hit some screen where a passel or fleet of Los Angelenos fumble their way toward self-consciousness, corraled by the freeways into smaller and smaller circles until we realize that they all already know each other. But Magnolia, in contrast to most of these movies, barely bothers to fix its locale as a worldly place, a place of real, waking lives. Magnolia, as wide and colorful as someone's bursting imagination, knocks its fluorescent scenes of kilowatted personal crises against one another, lighting faces so brightly that they pool with black shadows even bigger than personality, listing and tracking through hallways and suites and offices and conference rooms until the movie feels like a series of aftershocks. But they aren't tectonic aftershocks. They are psychic reverberations, prodigious ones, even in a movie whose off-kilter score, outsized characters, and rudimentary plot conflicts abolish any sense of realism. Is it too much to say the film derealizes psychology, even as it spelunks straight downward into its grottiest crevicesfathers who menace their daughters, sons who abjure their fathers, women trying to scale some terrible epiphanies just as they are dawning? Somehow, Anderson's baton-twirling virtuosity with his camera evaporates even more irony than it introduces, since the characters are, almost universally, experiencing their lives just as floridly as the film portrays them. Jason Robards' canker of angry loneliness, Julianne Moore's centrifugal self-dispersal, April Grace's surgical defrocking of Tom Cruise's panther pride (where is she now, when we most need her?), Jeremy Blackman's suffocation within his absorbent genius, Melinda Dillon's bitter medicinethese are all delectably reckless acting turns, a fine vintage of supporting performances packed into one robust buffet. But there's an idea inside all of this rococo reaching, because at least as I experience the movie, its tragic aspirations only work because of how, in the film's relentlessly forward and sideways velocity, all of the most extreme emotional states get windshield-wipered by all the other ones. No one's breakdown stands in much relief from anyone else's, and California, America, the now, they all become a pop-art collage of interchangeable secrets and miseriesthe source, too, of all the vividness and life in the movie, so we're never less than thankful for them. Anderson doesn't add these figures into any polemical sum, just one film's picture of the way things are, possessed of rather less variety than the sprawling cast and shifting style imply. Amidst all of this, the song (you know) and the frogs (you know) feel much less incongruous than the movie's two hints of connection: a stammering policeman's date with an addict and, even more miraculously, a relay of awkward telephone calls that succeeds against all odds at locating the person it seeks. Amazingly, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, two congenital over-actors, have finally found this least likely of movies in which to rein it all in and offer compelling, affecting snapshots of the normal. Threshold of revelation!
It's the nature of the beast that Magnolia teeters too far in some directions: young Stanley's soliloquy of protest is one too many, and a bit much for the mouth of a babe; Reilly's procedural mishap with his gun just sits inert on the screen, haphazardly slung together; and William H. Macy's scenes are aggravatingly garish in text and image. But who cares, compared to all the goodies tucked around the movie in unexpected cracks and corners: Cleo King's insolence and Felicity Huffman's observant invisibility, a great performance from some invisible actress who convinces Frank T.J. Mackey to contact his father, the hilarious production design of the What Do Kids Know? quiz show, the comic-book blue of Tom Cruise's black hair, Macy being dogged by the same truncated pop song, the epidemic rash of dissolves into Robards' poisoned lungs, the sound of toads hitting pavement, the wry question "Do you still want the peanut butter, cigarettes, and bread?", and every single cut that joins a symmetrical shot with some violence against balance, often a chiaroscuro close-up pushing against the edge of that wide, wide frame. I liked Anderson's Boogie Nights but have been blithely indifferent to any impulse to re-see it; I savored the sound and technique of Punch-Drunk Love, but I admit to having craved a more populated party; I have owned Hard Eight on second-hand VHS for almost five years and still haven't popped it in. But Magnolia seduces, pulls, lures me in, time and again, as though it has some gravitational pull. Flamboyant characters make their way through a world that is and isn't ours, and I can't stop watching. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)