Singing In The Rain

Film still for Singing In The Rain

An epic follow-up to Boogie Nights, P. T. Anderson's Magnolia tracks a slew of connected characters through 24 hours in LA. Pushing the pedal to the metal with style, it crams in more than most directors would dare to tackle in their third film. Mark Olsen looks at how he holds it all together

Messy is probably the best word to describe Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, a grandiosely sprawling, audaciously earnest concoction that yearns to find meaning and connection among an over-extended roster of characters in Southern California's San Fernando Valley during the course of one extremely eventful day and night. In structure, style and content, Magnolia is a magnificent train wreck of a movie, an intimate epic of full-throttle emotions that threatens to go off the rails at any moment during its three-hours-plus running time. In the inevitable media build-up to the film's US release much was made of Anderson's enviably precarious position: as the whiz-kid behind Boogie Nights (1997) this is his moment with the golden ticket and the keys to the castle.

Anderson's first feature Hard Eight (1996) was a neo-chamber piece of breathtakingly precise detail set among Nevada's casinos; Boogie Nights, his next, set in the 70s porn industry and significantly larger in scope and scale, leaped off the screen with a vicious exuberance. Both films did moderate box office, but the truckloads of critical praise they received left the door wide open for Anderson's perennially blossoming aspirations. And, quite simply, the kid ran with it, creating in Magnolia a film of rare ambition and beauty.

If Quentin Tarantino faced his post-Pulp Fiction moment with the sublimely understated Jackie Brown, Anderson has demanded the spotlight be turned up, not away. Magnolia contains 11 main characters and a handful of smaller roles and interweaves nine distinct storylines linked through similarities of situation and emotion as well as the extensive use of music by the singer/songwriter Aimee Mann. It doesn't really have a plot, though it incorporates a botched heist, sons searching for fathers, fathers looking for forgiveness and myriad other stock movie motivational devices. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a much loved television gameshow host, attempts to reconcile with his emotionally estranged and chemically addicted daughter Claudia (wonderfully captured by Melora Walters, in a performance destined to be overlooked) before he succumbs to terminal cancer. Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) must go about the unpleasant formalities of preparing for the impending death of her husband Earl (Jason Robards) while attempting to find something akin to healing for herself. Earl's nurse and caretaker Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) likewise does what he can to ease the pain, tracking down Big Earl's long-lost son (Tom Cruise), who has recreated himself as Frank T. J. Mackey, promoter of an extremely successful men's sexual self-help programme. Magnolia wends its way across the city, recording the hours of people whose lives seemingly don't relate and finding ways that they do. The film's structure is like a skeletal spine that creates connections between characters and scenes as lines of dialogue bounce off each other, ringing and rhyming in the viewer's head long after they've ambled by.

The film opens with three short vignettes interlinked by a voiceover from Boogie Nights alumnus Ricky Jay pondering the nature of fate and the meaning of chance. The energy and extravagance of the pre-credits sequence - an aerial shot of a plane swooping across a lake fills the frame; the camera glides across a rooftop as a man jumps from it, stopped in mid air so the precise geometry of his trajectory can be mapped out - are already more than most movies could contain. Then, after a few title cards and a tinkling electric piano, a blooming flower fills the screen and Mann goes full force into Harry Nilsson's 'One' ("the loneliest number") as a map of Los Angeles kaleidoscopes in the background. It is only now that the film presents its own enigmatic title, quickly moving on to introduce all the main characters and their situations, the song stopping and starting and stretching itself out to seem part of the fabric of their lives. Altogether this takes about 15 minutes, the pace not that of a disciplined marathoner preparing strategically for the journey ahead but of someone simply running as fast as they can, daring exhaustion to set in.

Mann's music is central to the film's structure. "It was really important to me that the movie felt like one story," says Anderson. "There are nine different plots, but I wanted to make sure it didn't feel like a vignette movie. So having one voice to unify it all seemed a good idea." Anderson had access to unreleased material by Mann (her husband Michael Penn scored his two previous features) and found particular inspiration in 'Wise Up', a song that featured on the soundtrack album to Jerry Maguire. Anderson commissioned Mann to write a handful of new songs specifically for his film including the closing-title number 'Save Me'. Mann's 70s-esque songwriting and production are neatly analogous to the ways Anderson freely appropriates from his personal pantheon of post-studio-system maverick film-makers (chiefly Altman, Demme and Scorsese) while at the same time striving to bring his own original vision to the screen.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the winningly inventive sequence Anderson has created around 'Wise Up'. Some two and a half hours into the movie, after countless moments of intense emotional trauma and physical pain, each of the main characters is at the end of his or her tether. It has been raining on and off, adding to the general dark-night-of-the-soul atmosphere which threatens to swallow the film whole, and a gentle piano progression aches out through the night. The camera slowly moves in on Claudia Gator as she sits alone in her apartment, and she softly begins to sing along. Cut to Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a lonely police officer (to be Claudia's date for the evening), who picks up the song where she left off. And on it goes from one character to the next, each in turn singing along to the mournfully wry lyrics, until the camera pulls back from the last of them, ending the sequence that formalises their bonds. One's initial reaction is to scoff, as if Anderson has finally gone too far. But the plaintive tone of the song maps the characters' connectedness in ways scene after scene of dialogue never could.

"Hopefully it unifies everything, calms everything down and feels completely natural," says Anderson. "Haven't you ever sung along to a song on the radio? In the simplest way, it's just that. I never thought it would be such a big deal. But I'm happy people respond to it." It didn't strike Anderson as audacious? "I thought it was going to be something very sweet, sentimental in the best way. I didn't consider it outlandish. And I still don't."

If it's difficult to explain the exact course of events in Magnolia, it's equally hard to unravel the chain of relations that links the characters. Late on in the film Anderson uses the end credits of the television gameshow that occupies much of the second hour to complete another circuit, reveal a new piece in the puzzle of the life of the dying Earl Partridge and create a new set of implied relationships around a character who never leaves his bed. It's tempting throughout to look for the secret centre of the film, and when Ricky Jay appears briefly as a producer of the gameshow - a bizarre kids-vs-adults trivia challenge called What Do Kids Know? - for an instant you think it might be him. But he quickly fades back into the tableau and we realise that here everyone stars in their own film, if only for a while. It's this skilful withholding of information that keeps the viewer focused, just as in Hard Eight Anderson pulled the viewer ever deeper into his characters' lives by constantly revealing with one hand while concealing with the other.

Like Tarantino, Anderson belongs to a generation of film directors weaned on the video store for whom watching movies is part of everyday life, not a ritualised experience like going to church. This has in part created the cinema of referencing so common among younger directors, the nerdy delight in out-obscuring one another. Boogie Nights borrowed from a wide variety of sources, and in Magnolia Anderson uses Jason Robards (star of an Anderson touchstone, Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard) and, in smaller roles, iconic Altman actors Michael Murphy and Henry Gibson (the latter as a scathing velvet menace preposterously named Thurston Howell who flippantly tosses off a bar-room cruelty reserved exclusively for strangers). Anderson claims he chose Gibson simply because, "I really wanted to work with that guy."

Magnolia is a film obviously in thrall to the process of movie-making, but its mournful overtones ring surprisingly loud from a film-maker barely 30 years old. By grappling with the fissure between the idealisations of the medium and the realisation of what it may lack (at one point Philip Seymour Hoffman pleads into the phone, "This is the scene in the movie where you help me out... This is that scene"), Anderson seems to be stumbling towards a maturity beyond the confines of a movie-made life. "I'm a product of growing up on movies, but when the movies betray you and haven't taught you how to feel something or what to do - for instance, if someone in your life dies - it's flabbergasting because the movies haven't shown you how to deal with that. I haven't been taught what to do when I can't find my car keys and I've got to go to the funeral. That's a scene you don't see.

"I hope my film is both very movie-wise and very reality-wise. I don't think you can pretend you haven't seen a movie if you're a director - I think part of my job is to acknowledge how many movies I've seen and how much that informs our lives. Movies are a big influence on how we deal with death, with family relationships, and I wanted to show that. But they can also be a complete betrayal in terms of how to live your life."

Keeping Magnolia grounded in 'reality' is largely up to the actors, who bring depth and feeling to characters who could easily skid off into caricature. Anderson usually has a specific performer in mind as he's writing each part, creating custom-fitted hot rods ready for each actor to take out for a spin. Here no one rises to the occasion better than Tom Cruise, who in the showboat role of a men's-movement snake-oil salesman obviously relishes the opportunity to put a devilish twist on his superstar charisma. If he stumbles during his climactic scenes you still admire the effort, and no one else could pull off Frank's interview-gone-awry with such electrically inviting hostility. ("What am I doing?" he coldly says to a journalist after she reveals she knows more than he wants her to. "I'm quietly judging you.")

More than any other recent film, Magnolia - its disorder, confusion and discomfort such a part of the movie the very film stock seems to have been steeped in it - is acutely aware of where we're at, precisely reflecting our daily lives. And going one better than the bittersweet victories that end Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, Anderson here provides a glimmer of hope as a reward to those who have endured the emotional maelstrom. Waiting for something, anything, to lift them up, two unlikely souls come together in one moment of genuine connection: Claudia Gator, seen quite literally in a different light, smiles brightly at the arrival of Jim Kurring, and the fog of her troubles burns off, if only for an instant. As for the rest of Magnolia's ragtag crew, they, like the rest of us, will continue to persevere, waiting for their frogs to fall.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012