According to Netflix, Mike and Jeffrey agree with each other on movies 84% of the time. In their weekly feature, The Awkward Movie Challenge, they search valiantly for that sweet 16% that results in big arguments and big laughs.
When we go to the movies, we have fairly reasonable expectations for whatever flick it is we’re going to view. If we’re to watch a comedy, we want to laugh. If a horror movie is on the docket, we want to get the chills. A drama should wrap us up in its plot, or at least engage us with characters worthy of emotional investment. At the very least, we want to be entertained. Some movies actually fulfill such expectations. A lot don’t. But then there are a select few that take our expectations, lift them over their heads, and smash them to pieces. I recall having such an experience around this time a decade ago. I was a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a movie that blended the epic storytelling of Scorsese’s Goodfellas with the puerile silliness of a seventh grader telling dirty jokes to crack up his friends at recess. So, naturally, I was psyched to see Anderson’s follow-up, Magnolia (released ten years ago this Friday). The trailer was pretty incomprehensible, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The cast was pretty stellar, though (Julianne Moore and Jason Robards, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters, Melinda Dillon, Phillip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly…). Tom Cruise was in it too.
So, I was basically a blank slate in a theater full of blank slates when I first saw Magnolia. The film introduces several major plotlines:
1. Jason Robards plays Earl Partridge, a wealthy television mogul with a dirty conscience, who wishes to make amends with his estranged son, T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), before dying of cancer. Mackey is a crazed, misogynist, “self-help” guru who runs seminars to instruct pathetic attendees how to fuck and run.
2. Game show host Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall) is another crappy dad who wishes to reunite with his child, the promiscuous coke head Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters), who loathes her father with good reason.
3. Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is a good-hearted but pretty lousy cop who falls for Wilson Gator when he is called to her apartment on a disturbance report.
4. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a contestant on “What Do Kids Know?”, the quiz show hosted by Jimmy Gator. Guess what? Stanley’s dad is a dick!
5. “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith is a former contestant on “What Do Kids Know?” famed for winning big on the show in the ‘60s before getting struck by lightning and surviving. He’s now making a scanty living as a celebrity spokesman. Where did all his Quiz Kid money go? Hmmm… maybe it has something to do with his awful father. But he plans to get his life on track by robbing one of his clients so he can afford the dental braces that will surely help him win the affections of a hunky bartender.
Toss in Julianne Moore as Earl’s slutty trophy wife, who now feels fatally guilty about her infidelities, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as his caring nurse, Melinda Dillon as Jimmy’s sweet but willfully ignorant wife, Alfred Molina as the owner of the appliance store Donnie Smith intends to burgle, and an army of minor characters played by the likes of Luis Guzman, Ricky Jay, April Grace, Henry Gibson, and Felicity Huffman, and you’ve got one unwieldy story. But Anderson’s goal was to create something operatic. To convey his “sins of the fathers” parable, he paid keen attention to mood, music, editing and camera movement. The first hour of this three-hour epic sustains an unbelievably controlled tension, as the camera moves through the vast cast of characters, providing us with clear introductions to their various plotlines and their intricate relationships as Jon Brion’s taut orchestrations pulse on the soundtrack (there are also some fine songs by Aimee Mann, whose lyrics provided Anderson with some of the inspiration for the film. A few lines from her tunes are even used as dialogue).
The acting throughout the film is equally operatic: buckets of tears are shed, characters scream at each other and at themselves, and Tom Cruise incessantly wails “Respect the cock and tame the cunt!” Even before the film takes its famous detour into The Twilight Zone, some viewers may be turned off by its melodramatic acting, which borders on grating (Cruise is almost painful to watch as he blubbers and wrings his hands like a maniac over his father’s death bed).
As stylized and outlandishly dynamic and melodramatic as Magnolia is for its first half, it’s basically rooted in reality. Then Anderson starts taking some pretty wild risks (some might call them “follies”). First, as each major cast member reaches a personal and pivotal crossroads (some weighing the old “to be or not to be” question), they engage in a bizarre, non-diegetic sing-along of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”. I recall heads turning in the theater, an atmosphere of “Wait, are you seeing what I’m seeing?” rising. Some people giggled. Some began bracing themselves for more startling surprises to come.
Then came the frogs. As Jim Kurring drives home after a pretty terrible date with Claudia Gator, he witnesses Donnie Smith breaking into the appliance store. Kurring makes a U-turn to cuff Smith then… Splat!… some sort of blob falls out of the sky and smooshes on his windshield.
A guy turned to me and asked, “Was that a frog?”
“I think so,” I responded.
Similar questions were being asked throughout the theater. A rather gruesome close-up revealed that it was, indeed, an unfortunate amphibian. Then all Hell broke loose both on the screen and in the theater as a violent, visceral, deafening rain of frogs fell on Los Angeles. People in the audience were cat-calling, shrieking, laughing hysterically, or like myself, just sitting there with their jaws unhinged. It was a shock greater than anything in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a communal event to beat any campfire chorus of “Kumbaya”. One thing I don’t necessarily expect when I go to see a film is to connect with the other people in the theater. Sure, we all laugh together during comedies and shudder collectively during the thrillers, but this level of interaction was unlike anything I’d experienced in a movie theater before or since. Well, except for when I went to see Magnolia again.
Magnolia and its insane climax were met with mixed reactions. As much as I love this movie, I haven’t actually met a lot of people who like it. Most of the criticism I’ve heard is that it’s incredibly pretentious (it is, but that isn’t necessarily a negative) and evidence of a callow filmmaker biting off more than he could chew. Others regard the film as a transcendent experience that renders issues of subtlety, believability, and consistency inconsequential. I definitely fell into the latter group. Magnolia affected me in a way that few other films ever have, even as I recognize its flaws and realize that it won’t appeal to everyone (although I think every serious film fan should see it). The over-the-top acting is tough for a lot of viewers to swallow, although some of the actors (Blackman, Robards, Hoffman, Reilly) give deeply nuanced performances that balance the more outrageous ones (Cruise, Moore, Walters). The prologue about various coincidences is marvelously executed, but it has nothing to do with the movie it precedes. The characters and their relationships are cartoony in a way that doesn’t really hold up under close examination. The bad-dads-galore theme is as two-dimensional as it is on TV’s “Lost”. Mackey and his absurd seminar seem to have come from that same juvenile side of Anderson responsible for some of the sillier aspects of Boogie Nights. In both cases, that silliness clashes with the graver moments in the respective pictures (but, in all fairness, provides some really funny moments). For every conversation about how Earl Partridge likes to say “cocksucker, shitballs, or fuck”, there’s a beautifully written piece of dialogue, like his lengthy, confessional deathbed monologue. There are also the Biblical implications of the rain of frogs, which indicates that God is using a little plague/miracle to recalibrate the increasingly adrift characters. This might irritate some viewers who aren’t inclined toward religious superstitions, but as long as they aren’t overly preachy, movies that suggest God exists don’t necessarily bother me (Hell, I like movies about vampires, and they don’t exist either). Wisely, Anderson chose a bizarre phenomenon that supposedly has some basis in fact, so Magnolia does not belabor its religious themes. Its message that there are things bigger than us humans and our petty problems— whether they be God (if that’s the kind of thing you like to believe in) or simply a vast, unpredictable universe that can… say… shower thousands of frogs on our heads at any time— is not terribly complex but it is pretty universal.
Ultimately, Magnolia is greater than the sum of its parts, and those who are willing to go with its freaky flow may find it to be an immensely rewarding and moving experience (I still get choked up when Claudia Gator gives her parting glance directly into the camera right before the credits roll). That it’s a great, big, glorious mess is one of the things I love about Magnolia, because its rough edges help to make the film the profoundly one-of-a-kind experience it is.
Mike gives Magnolia… 6 Crazy Cruises!