I suppose that if I walked along a pebble beach for long enough – trillions of years, say – I would eventually find a portion of the beach where the pebbles spelled out a message: “Happy birthday, Michael Hardach! Have a great day!” And if I walked long enough (billions of trillions of years) I might even stumble upon this message on the day of my actual birthday. It would be a pretty awesome moment. A couple of things would diminish my awe, however. One, I’d be dead. Two, the apparently amazing coincidence would be the result of the cold machinations of blind chance.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Because of the short length of human lives, truly stunning coincidences of this kind never happen. And so it is that the three coincidences described at the start of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia didn’t happen. The three men with crazily coincidental names didn’t murder the chemist (they were framed), the failed suicide shot by his own mother is a legal thought experiment designed to test the limits of the application of law, and the scuba diver dumped on a forest fire is an urban myth. But even if they had happened, they would be boring, because they would be coincidences.
Imagine the scene in the casting room: ‘We need an actor to play a macho misogynist prick. Mel Gibson’s not available. Who shall we use?’ They went for Tom Cruise. Watching Cruise pump his way through his character’s trajectory is a depressing experience. As he stands by his dying father that he hates, his face contorted with emotion as he (apparently) invokes memories of his real-life dying father… maybe I’m a heartless swine, but I just wanted to create an amusing animated gif of his face and put it on the internet for people to mock. If you put “tom cruise” magnolia filetype:gif into Google Images you’ll find that others have had similar ideas.
There is plenty of flashy filming in Magnolia and there are plenty of resonances between the loosely connected threads. To give just a couple of examples, the scuba diver in the tree at the beginning echoes the raining frogs at the end. The policeman’s musing over how he treats the criminals he finds (some need help, some need a warning, some need jail) echoes the decisions that the various children have to make about the failings of their fathers. And there are hundreds of these sorts of resonances in the three hours of Magnolia. So, if you like flashy filming and a high density of clever cross-references, this film could be for you.
William H. Macy does a nice turn as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, a loser adult who was a child star on a quiz show (his parents stole his winnings and abandoned him). Macy’s character’s existence has now become a trivia question of the kind he used to be able to answer. ‘Do you know who I am?’ he asks the people in a bar. And the answer is, Yes, you’re Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, and weren’t you struck by lightning? Philip Seymour Hoffman also has a good performance as a male nurse who keeps threatening to transform into the out-and-out pervert he played in Todd Solondz's Happiness (another film of loosely related stories with a bitter-sweet backdrop, but in my view much more successful than Magnolia). But the character ends up taking a different direction.
There’s a scene late on in the film where all the characters take turns to sing over Aimee Mann's song "Wise Up." It’s expertly filmed and the way the actors’ voices cut in over the original vocal is masterly. The song itself is suitably plaintive, with kooky chord changes, haunting piano chords and the cracked voice of a boho girl singer-songwriter, a fellow traveller. Like so much in this film it is both a success and a failure. It does what it set out to do but the end result is like one of those adverts for coffee or banks where they overlay a plaintive song by a cracked-voiced boho girl singer-songwriter, a fellow traveller.
Cramming in dying fathers, showing children rejecting their parents even when they’re terminally ill, describing the emotional fall-out of failed parental relations on children's lives – this stuff is the dramatic equivalent of the opium drops that Earl’s trophy wife obtains for him – and yet I found that it didn’t move me. Why not? Hard to say. The events shown are mostly not over the top and in some ways their mundane reality is a strength (child abuse, parental greed, parental abandonment), yet I didn’t believe in anything I was watching. More fundamentally I felt I was in the presence of a director who was ideologically removed from me. There are obvious influences from Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet’s Network and Robert Altman – not my favourite things.
Personal Score: 5/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.