The Good: Characters, Dialogue, Plot, Acting, "Look."
The Bad: None.
The Basics: Without exaggeration, Magnolia is a perfect film. A masterpiece of American storytelling, acting and directing with wonderful characters weaving an intricate tapestry.
"And the book says we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. And no, it is not dangerous to confuse children with angels!" So speaks the middle aged Donnie Smith, played by William H. Macy near the middle of the film Magnolia. That line epitomizes the level of thought ongoing in the film as all of its characters search for love and/or redemption.
Magnolia reviews have often been criticized for being pretentious, often stated as "as pretentious as the film itself." However, while some of the reviews do attempt to be overly dignified and important (or self-important), the film is truly excellent. In all implications of the word. It is containing an emotional and psychological depth often lacking in film today, it utilizes dialogue a caliber that is rare inside the dumbed-down popular culture too often prevailed upon in the U.S. and it is big and long. In a word: adult. This is an adult movie. It's not pandering to children, it's not pandering to teenagers ages 14 - 21, it's a movie with breadth and depth written by an adult, for an adult audience. Allow me to explain why.
First of all, the duration of the film is geared toward adults. At 191 minutes, three hours, eleven minutes for those of you doing the math, it's a long film. To watch the movie takes some degree of patience. "Patience?! The film can't be engrossing if it requires patience!" Au contraire, while the film requires the ability to remain stationary for three hours, it is very engaging. I've seen the film twice now and not once during it have I looked at a clock. It is that easy to lose oneself in it. If anything, I'm upset by the length only in that it requires two tapes. Ideally, I'd like to see the film without having to get up and change tapes. The reason the length is not at all a "con" is because it's all necessary. The film The Road Home, for example, is filled with simple conflicts that are easily resolved. Add to that that that film attempts to illustrate such things as waiting by showing the young woman waiting for her lover actually waiting. For extended periods of time, nothing happens because she's actually waiting. How does this relate to Magnolia? Several scenes in The Road Home could have been cut, not true with Magnolia. The sheer number of characters and plots make everything that appears in the film necessary. There aren't whole scenes or ideas that could be eliminated or trimmed in this film. Quite simply, the length of the film is indicative of the themes it explores. It's an adult movie, it's an adult length.
A huge reason the length is appropriate is the themes the movie portrays. The resounding themes of the movie are love and redemption. All of the primary characters in the film are either attempting to find or express love or are in a search for redemption. Some are involved with both themes. But this is not a juvenile exploration of either emotion or desire. The film deals with love with sensibilities and sensitivities of an adult. The need to be forgiven is powerful throughout the movie and it is written with appropriate passion and force. These are compelling ideas, aspects of human nature, that adults wrestle with. Magnolia is about adults wrestling with adult problems and themes.
So, what is Magnolia and how to write a review about it without sounding pretentious? The film as a mosaic of intertwining people's lives. That is the best description of the film: it is a larger work consisting of smaller, often unrelated elements. If you look at the pieces of the film, you'll see individual stories and characters, if you look at the film as a whole, you'll see overriding themes and ideas. I'd liken it a little more to a tapestry; the threads of a tapestry weave together and while it's possible to appreciate the various threads, the overall image is more pronounced. The difference between a tapestry and mosaic is subtle; with a mosaic, there's often less interaction between the component parts, whereas threads of different colors in a tapestry weave and wind through the larger work in more analogous ways. That is, one character or plot will appear suddenly in the film and another character or plot may disappear for quite some time.
So, what is Magnolia about? Due to the character-driven nature of the film, it's impossible to discuss the plot without focusing on the characters. The movie is about characters, about people, feeling and doing things. And the principles are:
Jim Kurring, a seemingly-together beat cop who plays by the rules and lives a principled, often humble, life is going about his life looking for love. In the course of the film and following a good arrest in a pretty heinous crime, he discovers Claudia.
Claudia is an often-inarticulate coke junkie who is recovering from her past (thought that quote at the beginning was irrelevant, did ya?! Shame on you!) and looking for love and seeking redemption from her past and present indiscretions. Claudia and Jim are often the heart and soul of the film, though it's near impossible to say that as they both have the screen perhaps a third of the movie. But their relationship is beautiful, realistic, and more than anything, adult.
Claudia's father is Jimmy Gator, aged game show host of the long-running "What Do Kids Know?" Jimmy is dying of cancer and in the course of the movie confesses all his indiscretions to his wife and appears before his daughter desiring nothing more than complete redemption for his crimes against her. Jimmy is lost and his inability to resolve himself to even being honest to the full truth of all he's done cripples him. He's a complex character seeking a complex absolution.
Perhaps the best foil for Jimmy is the child Stanley. Stanley is a child prodigy appearing on "What Do Kids Know?" As Jimmy degrades, Stanley, under enormous pressure to perform (as he is about to break a longevity record on the gameshow) from his father, his teammates, the producers of the show, begins to become actualized. He steps out of his childhood (which his intelligence has already forced him out of) and asserts his desires. One of the film's last lines is his and it articulates the most important desires of any human who has ever been an underdog, anyone who has wanted respect. Stanley is seeking love and acceptance for the person he is, not just the potential he represents.
On the same side of the spectrum is Donnie Smith, former champion on "What Do Kids Know?" It is his record Stanley is two days away from breaking and it's clear Donnie never had the actualization Stanley is seen achieving. Instead, Donnie, at the end of his celebrity, laments the losses of his life as he tries, more than anything else, to attempt to articulate his loves. His heart is a big one, his sense of damage deep, and as he tries to manipulate circumstances throughout the film to make his love possible, he expresses a vast range of emotions.
For every bit Donnie loves, Earl Partridge seeks redemption. Earl, aged and also dying of cancer (the fact that there are two people in the film dying of cancer seems to bother many reviewers; I'm not sure why. There are many people dying of cancer, especially in the 60+ range. These things truly happen!), is seeking forgiveness from his son. Through the course of the movie, the reasons for that desire become clear, but it is one of the bigger surprises of the film, so I'm not going to ruin it. Actually, this is a good time to say this: all of the driving forces behind the characters, complex as they are, come out. This film masterfully weaves so many of their motivations together, making them explicit and real. Earl wants deathbed redemption and his reasoning is compelling.
Around Earl are two very important and engaging characters. The first is Linda Partridge, Earl's significantly younger wife. Linda is a nexus of love and redemption. As one might guess seeing such a young woman with such an old man, her marriage to Earl was more than for love. The problem Linda has is that as Earl has moved closer to death, she has actually fallen in love with Earl and she feels tremendous remorse for the horrible things she's done, for her betrayals of Earl's love. There's a sense of poetic justice in the relationship Linda and Earl have.
The final primary character, and the second intertwined with Earl is Frank T.J. Mackey. He is a misogynistic, angry man, filled with hate and dogma. He's like the reactionary anti-christ motivational speaker. He conducts workshops on empowering men to be Men (read: men to be dogs). His "Seduce and Destroy" philosophy resonates through the film and it becomes clear early on that this is a scarred individual who is filled with hate. When news reaches him that Earl is dying, his becomes a most compelling exploration of how and why to give redemption and the magnitude of love, even for those who have done horrible wrongs to us.
The only character heretofore unmentioned is Earl's nurse, Phil. Phil is played expertly by Philip Seymour Hoffman and he serves as an excellent place to continue the analysis of Magnolia. Hoffman delivers a heartfelt performance as the nurse, carrying through the stages of Earl's degradation with stark realism, blind optimism and an impressive array of facial expressions. Juliane Moore and Melora Walters amazingly play Linda and Claudia. Their performances are sharp, expertly delivered in dialogue and simple strength of their portrayals. Jason Robards and Jeremy Blackman are expert actors fleshing out the dying Earl and the boy on the brink Stanley. Their acting is wonderful. The film is filled with wonderful actors acting wonderfully.
The best acting comes from three men, which is actually a semi-surprise to me. William H. Macy, who I've come to expect great performances from, adds so much depth and greatness to Donnie. He doesn't fail to deliver in Magnolia; if anything, he makes me raise his bar for his work even higher. He's that great. As good is John C. Reilly as Officer Jim. His performance is nothing short of incredible. He plays the part with such simplicity and presence that, when viewing the film, it's hard to take one's eyes off him. He's very real. He's needy and lovable and his words are poetic and portrayed with such stark realism and near-clumsiness that it's easy to miss how on-the-nose his dialogue truly is. The triumvirate is completed by Tom Cruise. Usually a clumsy, stylish, pretty face/bad actor, Frank is the role Cruise was born to play. If nothing else, it proves Cruise can act. The characters is slick, disgusting and loathsome and Cruise plays him expertly. He deserved every nomination and award he received for this role. He was that good. I never thought I'd ever say that about Tom Cruise, but this is the film to see him in.
On DVD, Magnolia comes with a featurette, a video diary of its production, which is enlightening. There is not a commentary track, but the behind-the-scenes featurettes are entertaining and educational. The bonus disc also contains closer looks at background components of the primary film.
Magnolia, in final analysis, is beautiful to watch. It's wonderfully shot, expertly put together, visually impressive. The soundtrack is integral and it works well. In short, this is a perfect film. It is an adult film and it deserves the attention of adults who have compassion, thought and emotions. This is the film adults have been waiting for. It captures our imagination and deals with real, adult problems and solutions, thoughts and emotions.
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© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.