Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Essentials- "Magnolia" (1999)

The Essentials- #43

Its been one full week since Philip Seymour Hoffman died, and all I can think about is how flawless his career was. I have been thinking and revisiting his films all week long, and I think its time to discuss one of my favorites. "Magnolia" is a huge, sprawling film about chance and coincidence. Its got a dense cast and how all of these characters overlap over three hours of running time is the content of the film. Yes, its a long movie, but it never, ever feels like a long movie. That's always been the genius of director Paul Thomas Anderson's work. He's made extremely long films like this, "Boogie Nights," and "There Will Be Blood," but they way he writes and the way he directs is so addicting, so hypnotic, so possessive that his films are well-paced.

To try to describe the film would take tons of discussion. Its a film that takes place in Los Angeles over one day. We are introduced to many people and how each character is connected to each other by coincidence and chance is the subject of the film. We meet Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), whose hard day on the job ends in a wonderful exploration. We meet Claudia (Melora Walters) who is a cocaine addict and whose father is dying of cancer. Claudia's father (Jason Robards) is a former producer of "What Do Kids Know?" and he watches as his nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) glady looks after him and his estranged wife (Julianne Moore) goes in and out of his house, bearing a terrible secret. A former "What Do Kids Know?" champion (William H. Macy), is fired from his job and he needs money for an operation that will change his life. We meet the possible next "What Do Kids Know" champion Stanley, and watch as he feels the pressure from his father to win the contest. We get to know Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) the shows producer and his terrible secrets. Finally, there's Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise in a role that helped define his career.) a narcissist who runs a self-help seminar to help men pick up women. 

That's a whirlwind of characters and it may seem that this is a lot of story for one movie. The thing is, Anderson is thoughtful in how he has these stories and characters collide. He's clever in the way the stories highlight the themes of the movie. This isn't a movie like "Crash" where the multiple stories cast a shadow on real social issues. This movie is a comment on how coincidence happens at a moments notice, and how strange certain people come into our lives. How the film is set up is really quite cool and is just one of the many great things about the film.

Each story is well-told and because of the strong cast, I was pleasantly surprised by how the drama effected me. When we think of John C. Reilly's career, we only think of his comedic performances. There is no question though, that Reilly had a long string of dramatic performances that were just as solid as his comedic performances. Robards, Hoffman, and Moore have a great story, and I especially love how Hoffman moves from funny to dramatic with glee. Easily one of my favorite Hoffman movies, his performance is a highlight of the film. I have to say though that Tom Cruise really steals the show. His performance is so in-your-face, so off-the-wall yet so piercing at the same time that you have to give him credit.  

The film is also surreal in a beautiful kind of way. There is a scene where it suddenly begins to rain frogs, and how each character is affected by this strange storm sets up a wondrous outcome. Its also striking when each character suddenly breaks out into song. You can laugh at that all you want, but within the context of the film, it really works. I also love how the opening moments detail several urban legends and how the themes of those legends echo throughout the entire film is quite impressive. Look for cameos by Orlando Jones, Thomas Jane and Patton Oswald. Look for how certain themes repeat themselves with nearly every story in the film. Most of all, look at "Magnolia" and bask in the epic greatness the film offers. It really is that effective.

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