I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia when it was first released in 1999, and the film blew me away. From the minute the movie opened in its glorious and sprawling 35 mm print, I knew I was seeing something that felt new, but was also somehow universal and timeless. The film didn’t just blow me away with its sheer unapologetic excess of emotion – Magnolia practically bleeds tears – but also with its grandiose scale on all levels. Running at over three hours, it is a massive ensemble cast melodrama that works like a dissection of the human heart, with all its longing, regret, pain and yearning. Set in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, the film is a sprawling tapestry of characters – mostly children and fathers – who seem disparate and disconnected but ultimately are connected by 1) the central failing patriarch Earl Partridge (played by the late Jason Robards) and 2) their shared humanity.
I have since watched the film many, many times, and it never loses momentum or impact. It seems to become increasingly more personal and universal on each viewing. I feel like I personally know every character and every story, from Tom Cruise’s ludicrously bombastic Frank T.J. Mackie to Jeremy Blackman’s cringing and exploited childhood prodigy Stanley Spector. As disparate, sympathetic and/or abominable as the vast sea of characters seems to be, they all end up being reflections of the ugly, awful and painful human struggle. Even when they seem despicable on the surface (Cruise’s Mackie and Robards’ Earl), in the end they are sympathetic because they are struggling. This universal sympathy despite the flaws of the film’s characters is largely a result of Anderson’s tremendous personal investment in the film. He is a no-holds-barred filmmaker, and he has made a film that is a fiction based on real life experiences. Magnolia is Anderson’s massive self-portrait which in turn becomes a portrait of everyone who watches it. Life, death, struggle, regret, and yearning – these are things that everyone experiences. But Anderson’s film does not make this universal human experience trite or stereotypical. He plays on tragic melodramatic traditions (from Oedipus to Shakespeare to Sirk), but he gives them an added twist by adding elements of the magical and absurd to show that life can be both painful and transcendent; absurd and utterly sincere.
Treading the line between absurdity and excess, Magnolia somehow lands on its feet in the center of the human heart. The film is the antithesis of the typical post-modern vacuum which has produced many films utterly lacking in passion and emotion. The film uses bizarre montages, surreal elements, and chapter headings showing the weather forecast to trace the turbulent storms of human existence. Anderson does not bypass human emotion through excessive cleverness; rather he uses clever absurdity to demonstrate both how absurd human beings are in general and how vulnerable and ultimately sympathetic this absurdity makes them. Anderson operates with a cinematic sledge hammer while wearing velvet gloves, and this makes the movie much more human than if he just played one side.
Magnolia opens with a rapid-fire montage of vignettes showing the interconnectedness of seemingly random events and people (a suicide turned homicide; a scuba diver killed by a compulsive gambler during a forest fire). It then dives fast and furiously into a stream of characters chaotically going through the routines of their lives. The characters seem to have no connection (a woman snorting cocaine and crying; a game show host fucking a woman backstage; a copy praying at the foot of a bed; an old man dying; a boy rushing to school; a man going to the orthodontist and crashing his car), but over the course of the film, Anderson weaves their stories together into a cohesive narrative that builds to a crescendo of cathartic release (not unlike a Greek tragedy). In the end, every single character is struggling with the traumas of his or her life (whether self-inflicted or the result of abuse and neglect) and somehow refers to the film’s center – Earl Partridge, the central patriarchal figure, TV production mogul who is dying of cancer in his San Fernando Valley home.
As he does for all of his films, Anderson takes into consideration every nuance of character and the actor playing the role. He frequently casts actors and then creates the roles for them, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman as Phil Parma. Parma is Earl’s caregiver, showing sympathy and patience as the old man flails through the end of his life, reciting his mistakes and his lost yearnings as he approaches death. Earl moans about his lifetime of trespasses, from abandoning his dying wife and his living son (who ends up being Frank T.J. Mackie) to committing acts of adultery and betrayal; yet Phil maintains a very sincere caring calm as he helps Earl on his mortal journey. In fact, the same could be said of Anderson. While the film rants and rails its way through human tragedies and melodramas, Anderson maintains an even hand. Adulterers and molesters are seen through Anderson’s eyes as flawed and fallible humans who are not entirely despicable but struggling with the aftermath of their bad decisions just like characters in a classic Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.
Certainly watching this film now, on the heels of Hoffman’s tragic death by drug overdose in 2014 and Robards’ passing a year after the film was made makes the scenes with these two actors and the movie as a whole much more humanly “real” and tragic. But the film already was painted with a reality brush since it is largely based on Anderson’s own life. Anderson spent much of his childhood in the San Fernando Valley where he lost his dad to cancer two years before Magnolia was released. Like Earl, Anderson’s father was a TV industry veteran. Among a long list of roles he played is his legendary alter-ego of Ghoulardi (after which Anderson’s film production company was named) who was the host of the Shock Theater,a TV show which showcased B horror movies.
His dad may have showed B movies, but there is nothing “B” about Anderson’s Magnolia. After the success of Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson was given a free pass by New Line Cinema to create any film he wanted. He took that pass and ran with it. Filmed mostly in 35 mm (except for the TV gameshow sequences which were shot on video to reflect the authenticity of the medium represented), the film is a densely layered, grandiose epic, which seems to have as many characters and storylines as it has minutes (over 180). Anderson said that his primary inspiration for writing the film was The Beatle’s song “A Day in the Life” which traces the intersecting tragic and sometimes ordinary lives of a multitude of people as seen through the daily news. Anderson said he wanted to make a film about all the different parts of himself that would feel the way the song sounds. Bookending the film with reportage of fictional news events and introducing chapters with changes in the weather forecast allows Anderson to maintain a kind or “reportage” while excavating authentic universal human experience. The intimacy of this epic film comes very much from Anderson’s personal vision – the death of his father, his childhood home, his love for a Beatles’ song. He inscribed himself onto the myriad of characters who crosshatch the film and did not shy away from emotion or the melodrama (cancer, molestation, addiction, overdoses, and child exploitation).
The fragmented story lines in the film are stitched together like the fragmented humans it features, all of whom are trying to piece themselves back together. One character (Whiz Kid Donnie Smits played by William H. Macy) attempts to piece the broken pieces of his life together with braces. Another, Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters) stuffs her nose with cocaine and fucks her way through a barrage of strange men while trying to exorcise the demons of her childhood trauma. Julianne Moore delivers an explosive performance as Earl’s wife Linda Partridge, a railing, crying and desperate woman beyond herself with grief, remorse, love and a desire to fix all the wrongs in her life by making amends with her dying husband. She pops pills, rants, cries, kisses the dying Earl, and attempts suicide. She is the embodiment of desperation – the common link between all the characters in the film. Everyone is desperate, clawing at disparate fragments of life and self. Their plight is sincere even if they are flawed and their acts reprehensible. Underneath the trauma and the failures, they are vulnerable humans.
Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackie is desperate to renounce his past while also attempting to surpass his father’s patriarchal tyranny by becoming a horrific parody of masculinity. He reinvents himself into a self-help guru whose motto is to “Worship the cock and tame the cunt”, as if becoming an impenetrable hard-on of a man could seal the cracks that were left inside him when Earl abandoned him as a child to care for his dying mother. But in the end, the façade Mackie maintains, like that of other characters, comes crumbling down when a storm of frogs descends from the human hurricane that has been whirling on screen for three hours. Frogs pound ceilings and windshields, slide down windows, flop on streets and parking lots as the film’s climax comes together. Divine intervention, ludicrous absurdity or cinematic silliness, the storm of frogs is an outpouring of internal human slime that joins all humans on the evolutionary emotional path through life.
All Anderson’s films center on flawed father figures, but Magnolia is his epic Father-Son film. The characters are bound in one way or another by Earl – The Father of Fathers. Earl is dying. He doesn’t stand a chance. He has failed his son, his dead wife, and his life, and he is looking for redemption or at least a witness. In that regard, the film operates like an operatic confession, not just for Earl but for the other fathers who fail but who are also tied to Earl. Claudia’s dad Jimmy Gator (Anderson veteran actor Philip Baker Hall) is the host of the Partridge production game show “What Do Kids Know” while Stanley’s dad Rick Spector (Michael Bowen) exploits his son’s genius to make big bucks on the show. We don’t meet the grown Whiz Kid Donnie Smith’s dad, but we see the aftermath of the childhood exploitation that left Donnie a broken and desperate man.
The movie could very well bear the same title as Earl’s game show. “What do kids know?” Everything and more if you watch what children reveal in this movie. The kids bear the burden of their fathers’ mistakes while the fathers are weighed down by the load of their massive fuck-ups. The central father, Earl, the man who “produced” this epidemic of broken children, lies a broken man. He is a kind of King Lear of the San Fernando Valley dying in a sea of regret. He bemoans not being able to recall details and words, and he complains to his nurse Phil that the first thing to go is “timelines.” That’s because Earl and what he represents is timeless. That’s why we have seen various incarnations of him across literary history. Human lives, emotions, mistakes, regrets and pains cannot be easily contained in such tidy containers as “timelines”.
Timelines are both first thing to go in Anderson’s film while also being the very thing that holds his film together. The opening sequence which introduces the myriad of lead characters is punctuated by Aimee Mann’s poignant cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One” by Aimee Mann. The multitude of vignettes cut back and forth while Aimee Mann’s song rises to a crescendo:
One is the loneliest number that you'll ever know
One is the loneliest number
One is the loneliest number
One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do
One is the loneliest number, much much worse than two
One is the number divided by two
Mann’s plaintive lyrics reside at the heart of this movie which is about the loneliness and isolation of the one and its connectivity to the many. The movie is about individual struggles, human isolation, the places where we misplace hope, the fuck-ups that make us and breaks us, and our clamoring for redemption and love despite living in a tragic world. But it is also about the universality of all those things. The film shows us broken men of Shakespearean or Greek proportions and their malformed children, casualties of abominable parents. Its tragic outcomes are so massive that the film could be a remake of the Oedipus cycle or a Shakespearean tragedy set to a rock opera. Like classic tragedies, the characters are far from one dimensional, despite the melodramatic context of the storyline.
The movie is both blunt and poignant. People do bad things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad people. Even when we see the outcome of the parental misdeeds – a woman so traumatized by being molested by her father that she shoves cocaine and strange dicks in her body to compensate; a man so broken by his father abandoning him as a boy who had to care for his dying mother that he transforms himself into a sexual abomination, a sick parody of masculinity; a young boy so exploited that he pees his pants on public TV while his demanding father waits in the green room to cash the check his son earns; and finally a former whiz kid who thinks braces will redeem him and give him the glory and love he always wanted while his parents cashed his checks. Magnolia is largely about payback or at least ownership, in which parents own up and pay up for their misdeeds. In many directors’ hands, this film could become trite “Made for Lifetime TV” melodrama. But Anderson has the bravado to show these broken fathers as both sympathetic and monstrous. They cry. They break. They fold with regret and remorse for their deeds. Anderson allows the audience to feel everyone’s pain the film, and the actors most assuredly deliver the goods.
Magnolia is tragedy, melodrama and rock opera all in one. The fathers are fatally flawed, and there is no turning back. The mistakes have been made, and the children bear the torch, just like in the Oedipus cycle. But the film is also a classic melodrama because it uses tragic elements to bring characters together. The characters are unique individuals struggling with their unique problems, yet their struggles ultimately connect them to the one central very flawed character – Earl. Earl and his busted timelines are the glue that hold the characters together.
Anderson gives these elements a fresh twist by joining a large sprawling ensemble cast into a singular cohesive narrative made of separate and distinct storylines that become one storyline. (“One is the loneliest number.”) The Aimee Mann soundtrack is critical to the film’s effectiveness, and it pushes the film’s bombastic dramatics into the arena of rock opera which rises to a brilliant moment of emotional catharsis when the cast comes together to sing Aimee Man’s “Wise-Up.” Each character sings quietly in his or her isolated world, and they are joined together in their plight by the lyrics of the song which call for all the characters in the film to “wise up,” own up, take a look at the truth and move forward:
You're sure there's a cure
And you have finally found it
You think one drink
Will shrink you till you're underground
And living down
But it's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
It's not going to stop
Till you wise up
All the characters are looking for a “cure” or something to dull the pain or fill a need: drugs, sex, love. But it’s time for them to “wise up” and realize that their struggles are not unique to them and that they are joined to the human race through shared trauma. They can spend all the time in the world preparing a list of what they need (to paraphrase the song), but until they recognize their connection to others, they are caught in the void of continuous lack. The song brings the characters and their struggles together as the film cuts back and forth through the characters singing together in “real time” though in separate locations. This sequence is one of the most moving musical numbers in movie history. Through his use of a pop song to promote mass catharsis through a myriad of characters, Anderson has brought a truly unique vision to timeless genre (tragic melodrama).
Magnolia uses genre history (tragedy, melodrama, and opera) to more broadly explore the effects of trauma on human lives – the traumas that children endure and the scars they live with as adults, and the traumas that adult perpetrators endure through guilt and remorse. The isolated individuals struggled with their traumas while being bound at the center through Earl. Perhaps Earl’s failed timelines are what lead to alternate pathways towards healing. Maybe the timelines have to go for people to wise up. Through Earl’s death and the crescendo of frogs that comes with it, all the characters dismantle the timelines that have locked them inside their narratives. They reach out of themselves towards others.
The “Wise Up” sequence is critical as a moment of hope amidst stories of trespass, despair and trauma. The characters’ voices rise in song from the depths of isolated despair. It is a pivotal moment in the film that reaches out to the audience and begs us to join in and sing along. Trauma has twisted the characters into deformed and barely functional beings, but by the end, all the characters have been leveled to the same vulnerable playing field, a field which holds opportunities for new timelines and a change in the weather forecast. Sometimes events and people are connected by chance, but also sometimes people need to “wise up” and mold those chance moments into opportunities for change.
After I watched the film the first time, I immediately hit the record store and bought the soundtrack. I could not stop listening to “Wise Up.” As a survivor of incredible trauma in my life, I felt a kindship with all the characters on screen, even the “bad dads” who, through Anderson’s lens, are not given a free pass but at least are shown as flawed and vulnerable humans who made terrible mistakes. In this, Anderson is one of the more emotionally generous filmmakers working today. Though some characters do bad things, there is no bad and no good in Magnolia. There is only being human and all the mess that comes with it.