Magnolia

USA 1999

Reviewed by Leslie Dick

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, the present. The lives of several characters intersect over the course of a day.

Television producer Earl Partridge, whose production company makes the game show What Do Kids Know?, is dying of cancer. He asks his nurse Phil Parma to help him contact his estranged son Jack, now a guru on the art of seducing women who goes by the name Frank T. J. Mackey. Earl's wife Linda, who married him for money but only now realises how much she loves him, spends the day gathering prescriptions from various doctors. Jimmy Gator, presenter of What Do Kids Know?, also has cancer and tries unsuccessfully to reconcile with his estranged daughter Claudia, a coke addict. Reported by the neighbours for playing music too loud, Claudia is later visited by police officer Jim Kurring who asks her for a date.

Jimmy presents what will be his last show; one of the contestants is Stanley, a child genius, whose father Rick bullies him. Donnie Smith, the show's star contestant in the 60s, is fired from his job that day and gets drunk in a bar where he declares love to barman Brad. The show falls apart due to Jimmy's failing health and Stanley's refusal to participate in the final round. At home, Jimmy indirectly confesses to his wife Rose he abused Claudia as a child; she leaves him. Driving home after his awkward date with Claudia, Jim sees Donnie trying to break back into his employer's offices to return money he stole. Frank arrives at Earl's for a final confrontation before Earl dies. Stanley tells Rick he has to be nicer to him. Jimmy shoots himself just as a sudden bizarre rain of frogs descends over the area which also knocks Donnie off the building and causes the ambulance carrying Linda - who has attempted a drug overdose - to crash.

In the morning, Earl has died but Linda is recovering. Jim helps Donnie return the money and then visits Claudia; they seem poised to begin a relationship.

Review

Magnolia is a street that runs east-west through the San Fernando Valley, parallel to Burbank and Ventura boulevards. And Magnolia isn't a Hollywood movie; it's a Valley movie, like Earth Girls Are Easy. The Valley is an indeterminate space of multiple overlapping soap operas, a place without distinguishing features or final destinations. Magnolia, like the Valley in microcosm, somehow incorporates no less than 12 major characters and innumerable unlikely plots and subplots into a whirlwind structure that periodically, with exhilarating insouciance, insists on its own anti-realism. (When they switch off the rain, as the weather report appears in neat text across the screen; when characters separated by space and emotional distance sing the same song together, accompanying the soundtrack; when one of the 10 plagues of Exodus erupts in these nondescript fleshpots, the thrill is something else.)

Magnolia ends up being about narrative, as it moves with an indescribable intensity between and within these various stories. The film begins (and ends) with a voiceover paean to coincidence, as if, without coincidence - spatial, temporal - there would be no tales to tell, no relations between people whatsoever. Fundamentally, it is a film against patriarchy, in which (almost) every position is doubled, as if to underline the point. There are two dysfunctional families, each headed by a powerful old man who is dying, each with one estranged child (Frank, Claudia) who can only scream with inarticulate rage when faced with a dying father. Each old man has a wife, one popping prescription drugs and eventually attempting suicide, the other apparently permanently sozzled on large tumblers of vodka with ice. All the women without exception have substance-abuse problems (Claudia is the cokehead to end all cokeheads), which make them extremely unappealing, an ironic by-product of this film so deeply critical of patriarchal structures. Paradoxically, in charting the damage done by fathers to their children (and wives), Magnolia can't help reinscribing a whole set of tired old misogynist clich├ęs.

Then, as if we have missed the point, Magnolia presents not one but two additional damaged kids, both child geniuses: Stanley is a young boy performing brilliantly on a television quiz show called What Do Kids Know?; Donnie is an adult ex-whiz kid, famous (in a pathetic, Valley way) from the same show in the 60s. The child Stanley is demonstrably at the mercy of his single father and the oblivious adults from the show, which is shown to be a theatre of cruelty, transforming his intelligence into mere fodder for the spectacle. The quiz show scenes are harrowing, as in the heartbreaking moment where Stanley simply refuses (on live television!) to take part in the final round. Later he tells his insane father, "Dad, you have to be nicer to me." If only it were that simple. (You can't help wondering where this poor kid's mother is - in rehab, maybe?) Meanwhile, both powerful old men are television people: Jimmy Gator is the 30-year veteran presenter of What Do Kids Know?; Earl Partridge is the show's producer. In some sense, the station is understood to be the television industry's institutionalisation of fatherly abuse, as these evil old men carry over into their careers the ruthless exploitation that occurs within their families.

Within all this, there are a series of amazing performances, some extremely funny scenes, held together by Robert Elswit's radical cinematography and Paul Thomas Anderson's sheer nerve. Although Magnolia runs over three hours in length (his previous film Boogie Nights was nearly as long), nothing is superfluous to Anderson's project, and the film is worth seeing for Tom Cruise's performance alone. He plays Frank T.J. Mackey, inspirational guru for Seduce and Destroy, an organisation which instructs men how to exploit women sexually. Abandoned by his father at 14, left to nurse his cancer-stricken mother, Frank's tragedy lies in the way he is doomed to repeat his father's sins.

To continue the doubling, there are more Capraesque figures, who wander through this forest of neurosis and psychic damage like Bambis in the woods. First, there's the innocent cop Jim, who falls in love with the cokehead Claudia, in a case of severe wishful thinking: the idea that these two might make a go of it is both the only hopeful note and the most implausible dimension of the film. And Stanley the child genius has his youthful counterpart in the boy the cop encounters, a sophisticated child who functions as the Greek chorus to the movie, appearing intermittently to save somebody's life, steal a gun or recite hip-hop rhymes the cop can't understand. At least the cop is only a klutz, not a sadistic shit like the other men Claudia knows. And he really does want to know who she is, paralleling the brilliant woman reporter who cross-questions Frank into sulky silence.

The other innocent is Phil Parma, hospice nurse, who gently, tearfully places a dropper of liquid morphine in Earl's mouth, thereby saving him from the pain of remembering who he is or what he's done. Both these innocents abroad are benevolent, but their kindness is wildly at odds with the cruelty and pain all around them, and here Anderson seems to want to weave a thread of pure sentimentality into the film, which doesn't really wash. The old men talk, deathbed-style, about their crimes ("I cheated on her! I cheated on her!" they whine, as if that's the worst thing anyone could do to anyone), and then (as the film's bizarre catastrophe strikes) they die, miserably. With them out of the way, there is the tiniest vestige of a possibility of change.

This film moves between various sites - Earl's deathbed, the show, the electronics store, the gay bar, Frank's seminar, Claudia's apartment - mapping out not only a narrative connectedness, but an emotional geography. Magnolia has a rhizome structure: like the Valley, it is without centre, spreading in all directions, with proliferating nodes or intersections providing the sites of concentration. Rhizome-like, it duplicates itself structurally, as each element is repeated, with variations. It's a gambler's strategy - double or nothing - and Magnolia's gamble pays off.

Credits

Director
Paul Thomas Anderson
Producer
Joanne Sellar
Screenplay
Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography
Robert Elswit
Editor
Dylan Tichenor
Production Designers
William Arnold
Mark Bridges
Music
Jon Brion
©New Line Productions, Inc.
Production Companies
New Line Cinema presents a Joanne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company production Executive Producers
Michael De Luca
Lynn Harris
Co-producer
Daniel Lupi
Associate Producer
Dylan Tichenor
Executive in Charge of Production
Carla Fry
Production Executive
Leon Dudevoir
Production Associate
Jennifer Barrons
Production Supervisor
Craig Markey
Production Controller
Paul Prokop
Production Co-ordinators
Eileen Malyszko
Supervising:
Emily Glatter
Unit Production Manager
Daniel Lupi
Unit Supervisor
Dan Collins
Location Manager
Timothy Hillman
Post-production
Executive in Charge of:
Jody Levin
Supervisor:
Mark Graziano
Services:
Brent Kaviar
Assistant Directors
Adam Druxman
Tina Stauffer
Jorge L. Baron
Script Supervisor
Valeria Migliassi Collins
Casting
Cassandra Kulukundis
Voice:
Barbara Harris
Camera Operators
Paul Babin
Aerial:
Hans Bjerno
Underwater:
Cynthia Pusheck
Steadicam Operators
Guy Bee
Elizabeth Ziegler
Visual Effects
Supervisor:
Joe Letteri
Producer:
Joseph Grossberg
Executive in Charge of:
Lauren Ritchie
Special Visual Effects/Animation
Industrial Light & Magic
ILM Visual Effects Producer:
Camille Geier
Animation Supervisor:
Paul Griffin
CG Supervisors:
Gregor Lakner
Greg Maloney
Lead Animator:
Marjolaine Tremblay
Modelling Supervisor:
Tony Hudson
Frog Construction:
Aaron Pfau
Derek Gillingham
Production Co-ordinator:
Robin Saxen
Digital Artists:
Matt Bouchard
John Helms
Joshua Levine
Tia Marshall
Steve Molin
Julie Neary
Barbara Townsend
Andy Wang
Lindy Wilson
Animators:
Colin Brady
John Zdankiewicz
Lead Matchmover:
Luke Longin
Digital Paint/Roto:
Beth D'Amato
Mike Van Eps
Art Director:
David Nakabayashi
Digital Matte Artist:
Brian Flora
Visual Effects Editor:
Michael Gleason
CG Operations:
Vicki Beck
Tony Hurd
Andrea Biklian
Digital Plate Restorations:
Michelle Spina
Stephanie Tolbert
Scanning:
Mike Ellis
Todd Mitchell
Senior Staff:
Chrissy England
Patricia Blau
Jim Morris
Game Show Unit Motion Control
Don Gray
Practical Frog Effects
Steve Johnson's XFX Group
Effects Supervisor:
Dan Rebert
Lead Artist:
Bernie Eichholz
Sculptor:
Glenn Hanz
Lead Painter:
Vince Niebla
Thermal Plastic Engineer:
Steve Shubin Jr
Animatronics:
Enrique Bilsland
Co-ordinators:
Bob Newton
Fernando Favila
Special Effects
F/X Concepts Inc
Special Effects Supervisor:
Lou Carlucci
Special Effects Administrator:
Diane Carlucci
Graphic Artist
Kim Lincoln
Game Show Opening Graphics
Flip Your Lid
Steve Soffer
Set Designer
Conny Boettger-Marinos
Set Decorator
Chris Spellman
Claudia's Artwork
Fiona Apple
Melora Walters
Costume Designer
Mark Bridges
Costume Supervisor
Karla Stevens
Key Make-up Artist
Tina K. Roesler
Make-up Artist
Selina Jayne
Key Hairstylist
Kelvin Trahan
Key Hair
Rita Troy
Main Title Sequence Designed/Produced by
Balsmeyer & Everett, Inc
Titles
Brian King
Opticals
Pacific Title
Songs
Aimee Mann
Additional Instruments/
Odd Pieces of Musical Business
Jon Brion
Fiona Apple
Conductor
Thomas Pasatieri
Executive in Charge of Music
Toby Emmerich
Music Executive
Dana Sano
Music Co-ordinator
Bob Bowen
Music Editor
Paul Rabjohns
Music Scoring Mixer
Dennis Sands
Score Consultant
Thomas Pasatieri
Music Technical Consultant
Jonathan Karp
Soundtrack
"One" by Harry Nilsson, performed by Aimee Mann; "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss, performed by Herbert von Karajan, The Vienna Philharmonic; "You Do", "Momentum", "Wise Up", "Build That Wall", "Save Me", "Nothing Is Good Enough" by/performed by Aimee Mann; "WDKK Theme Song" by Jon Brion; "The Logical Song", "Goodbye Stranger" by Roger Hodgson, Rick Davies, performed by Supertramp; "Dreams" by Gabrielle Bobb, Timothy Laws, performed by Gabrielle; "Driving Sideways" by Aimee Mann, Michael Lockwood, performed by Aimee Mann; "Overture" from "Carmen" by Georges Bizet, performed by Herbert von Karajan, The Vienna Philharmonic; "Whispering" by Richard Coburn, Vincent Rose, John Schonberger
Sound Mixer
John Pritchett
Re-recording Mixers
Robert J. Litt
Michael Semanick
Michael Herbick
Steve Pederson
Recordists
Marsha Sorce
Gary Ritchie
Kevin Webb
Supervising Sound Editor
Richard King
Dialogue Editors
Michael Haight
James Matheny
Hugo Weng
Sound Effects Editor
Hamilton Sterling
Sound Effects Recordist
Eric Potter
ADR
Supervisor:
Kimberly Harris
Recordist:
Jeannette Browning
Mixers:
Doc Kane
Thomas J. O'Connell
Rick Canelli
Foley
Supervisor:
Christopher Flick
Artists:
Dan O'Connell
John Cucci
Recordist:
Linda Lew
Mixer:
James Ashwill
Editor:
Ed Callahan
Game Show Unit Consultant
Fred Witten
Police Technical Advisers
Call the Cops
Stunt Co-ordinator
Webster Whinery
Aerial Co-ordinator
Alan Purwin
Dogs Supplied by
Steve Berens' Animals of Distinction
Helicopter Pilot
Dirk Vahle
Pilot
Rick Shuster
Cast
Jeremy Blackman
Stanley Spector
Tom Cruise
Frank T.J. Mackey
Melinda Dillon
Rose Gator
April Grace
Gwenovier
Luis Guzmn
Luis
Philip Baker Hall
Jimmy Gator
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Phil Parma
Ricky Jay
Burt Ramsey
Orlando Jones
Worm
William H. Macy
Quiz Kid Donnie Smith
Alfred Molina
Solomon Solomon
Julianne Moore
Linda Partridge
Michael Murphy
Alan Kligman, Esq
John C. Reilly
Officer Jim Kurring
Jason Robards
Earl Partridge
Melora Walters
Claudia Wilson Gator
Michael Bowen
Rick Spector
Henry Gibson
Thurston Howell
Felicity Huffman
Cynthia
Emmanuel L. Johnson
Dixon
Don McManus
Doctor Landon
Eileen Ryan
Mary
Danny Wells
Dick Jennings
Pat Healy
Sir Edmund William Godfrey
Genevieve Zweig
Mrs Godfrey
Mark Flannagan
Joseph Green
Neil Flynn
Stanley Berry
Rod McLachlan
Daniel Hill
Allan Graf
firefighter
Patton Oswalt
Delmer Darion
Ray 'Big Guy' Gonzales
Reno security guard
Brad Hunt
Craig Hansen
Jim Meskimen
forensic scientist
Chris O'Hara
Sydney Barringer
Clement Blake
Arthur Barringer
Frank Elmore
1958 detective
John Kraft Seitz
1958 policeman
Cory Buck
young boy
Tim 'Stuffy' Sorenen
infomercial guy
Jim Ortlieb
middle-aged guy
Thomas Jane
young Jimmy Gator
Holly Houston
Jimmy's showgirl
Benjamin Niedens
little Donnie Smith
Veronica Hart
Melissa Spell
dentist nurses
James Kiriyama-Lem
Doctor Lee
Jake Cross
Charlie Scott
pedestrians
Juan Medrano
Nurse Juan
John Pritchett
police captain
Cleo King
Marcie
Michael Shamus Wiles
Captain Muffy
Jason Andrews
Doc
John S. Davies
cameraman
Kevin Breznahan
Geoff, seminar guy
Miguel Perez
Avi Solomon
David Masuda
man coroner
Neil Pepe
officer 1
Lionel Mark Smith
detective
Annette Helde
woman coroner
Lynne Lerner
librarian
Scott Burkett
WDKK page 1
Bob Brewer
Richard's dad
Julie Brewer
Richard's mom
Nancy Marston
Julia's mom
Maurey Marston
Julia's dad
Jamala Gaither
WDKK p.a.
Amy Brown
WDKK page 2
Meagen Fay
Doctor Diane
Patricia Forte
Mim
Patrick Warren
Todd Geronimo
Virginia Pereira
pink dot girl
Craig Kvinsland
Brad the bartender
Patricia Scanlon
cocktail waitress
Natalie Marston
Julia
Bobby Brewer
Richard
Clark Gregg
WDKK floor director
Pat Healy
young pharmacy kid
Art Frankel
old pharmacist
Matt Gerald
officer 2
Guillermo Melgarejo
pink dot guy
Paul F. Tompkins
Chad, Seduce & Destroy
Mary Lynn Rajskub
Janet, Frank's assistant
Jim Beaver
Ezra Buzzington
Denise Woolfork
Smiling Peanut patrons
New World Harmonica Trio
harmonica players
Bob Downey Sr (A Prince)
WDKK show director
William Mapother
WDKK director's assistant
Larry Ballard
WDKK medic
Brett Higgins
Brian Higgins
Mackey disciple twins
Michael 'Jocco' Phillips
Mackey disciple in middle
Lillian Adams
Donnie's old neighbour
Steven Bush
Mike Massa
Dale Gibson
paramedics
Scott Alan Smith
ER doctor
Certificate
18
Distributor
Entertainment Film Distributors Ltd
16,597 feet
188 minutes 25 seconds
Dolby
Colour/Prints by
DeLuxe
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011