What I intrigues me about Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) is the high level of drama he’s able to achieve without being a soap opera or a total tear-jerker.
This writer/director’s stories occupy some strange place in between where you are drawn in to a character, but you are never quite brought to try to identify with that character’s emotional landscape–there’s always a bit of observational distance. There are several instances in the film (which as someone who really doesn’t like to post spoilers I won’t specify here) where you think you understand a character’s action and motivation but it is then revealed how different it actually was, and suddenly you feel a bit uncomfortable realizing how quickly you’d made an assumption.
This is emphasized by the editing style of the film, which weaves in and out of several intertwined story lines sometimes mid-scene, in the middle of the narrative arc or beat of the scene, and then brings you back to discover that you had it all wrong. The first hour of the film is also full of sweeping crane shots and evocative music that also elevate this disorienting floating sense as your brain tries to grasp understanding the characters.
Magnolia is packed with an incredible cast of well known actors: Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina. The film follows an array of characters who are in some state of desperation, loneliness or grieving. But it’s not as somber as it sounds. More just bizarre. The most memorable character for me is Tom Cruise’s meta portrayal of big time player “Seduce and Destroy” plan for getting men laid. Julianne Moore also reveals a whole other side to her I hadn’t seen on screen before and enjoyed. There’s something to be said for the racial portrayal in this film–the reporter character who interviews Frank Mackey tips the balance a bit of what otherwise would be a disappointing stereotyped portrayal of black characters.
What most people seem to fixate on is the bizarre thing that happens toward the end of the film (again, no spoilers here) that requires a sudden suspension of disbelief for those of us who might not take biblical predictions quite so literally. And also why the film is named Magnolia. There’s lots of speculation on it. A few interesting things I’ve read include: it is the name of the street in the San Fernando Valley where the car crash occurs in the end (this is not a key plot point spoiler), eating magnolia tree bark is thought by some herbalists to help cure cancer, numerical speculations that letters refer to biblical passages, and all sorts of other things.
If you are looking for something that offers a different kind of storytelling structure and can sit with its way of unraveling, add this to your queue!