I recently revisited Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant Magnolia (1999). It had been over two decades since I saw it in the theater with friends. At the time, I was struck by how genuine and truthful the performances were by the actors. Anderson, like many directors, has a core ensemble that he uses from one picture to the next and some of those players were involved.
John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alfred Molina, and Julianne Moore are all familiar faces from his little core troupe of thespians that appear in this effort of intersecting lives and tragedies in the San Fernando Valley. From the opening scenes involving a series of unfortunate events, you know that this is a special film. One that may operate on a higher level.
As the late Ricky Jay so eloquently states at the beginning of this masterwork, “These strange things happen all the time.” And they do, more frequently than we care to admit. From the minute Magnolia starts with the dark irony of a pharmacist who gets murdered in Greenberry Hill where his shop is located by men named Green, Berry and Hill to a Black Jack dealer (Patton Oswalt), dying by accident at the hands of a regular at his table who is swimming in debt and ends up killing himself, to argumentative parents whose suicidal son jumps off their apartment building, only to have his mother shoot him in the chest in mid-air while he plunges to the ground…
The world we live in is a chaotic place and Anderson attempts to make sense of it through this film. He has created an opera, albeit with Amy Mann’s songs highlighting key points. These characters are larger than life. Every little nuance a crescendo into potential travesties. All of them searching for a deeper meaning to their existence.
The Cast of Characters…
Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) picks up a stranger in a bar and does blow so she doesn’t have to be held accountable for her actions. She lets him screw her while she remembers her father, Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall) doing the same thing to her when she was younger.
Then, there’s “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) who won big bucks on a game show as a kid and is living off that pseudo fame years later as a broken-down salesman in a low rent furniture store. Like Claudia, he longs for a human connection. He wants to be loved so much that he gets braces like Brad the bartender. A hunk that he pines for even though he doesn’t need them.
Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is a man of the law. He’s a servant of the people. Everything he does is by the book. While he may be leading by example, his life is lonely. He has no one to share anything with and he’s so used to interacting in a professional manner, that he can’t really connect with anyone whether he’s on duty or off. That’s why he’s resorted to personal ads to find a partner. Much like Donnie, “He has a lot of love to give.”
Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) is a trophy wife that has seen better days. Yes, she is well maintained and is striking enough to turn heads but her soul is dead. She fell in love with her husband, Earl late in the game and now he has terminal cancer and is wasting away before her eyes. He has always been her provider and she hasn’t had to think about anyone or anything other than herself. So, she is at a loss at what to do when he passes on. This weighs heavily on her and she ends up doing prescription drugs to numb the pain. The way that Claudia snorts coke. It is all a panacea that they think is a patch or cure but in reality, it’s a placebo. Moore has some brilliant moments as the “diva” in this picture. Her monumental breakdowns and histrionic outbursts fit her character’s fragile mental state. As she unwinds, we feel for her, we understand her pain. The question is can she forgive herself?
Jason Robards, was dying in real life just like his character, Earl Partridge. The actor was diagnosed with lung cancer and Magnolia was his final appearance on film. Although he is in a bed for the entire time he is on screen, his every moment is truthful. There is no over-emoting in his performance. It is understated and it is gut-wrenching. As he recounts the many regrets of his life to his ever-loyal and compassionate caretaker, Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) we can’t help but feel his agony. His infidelities, leaving the love of his life, Lily who was dying in the care of his teenage son, Frank (Tom Cruise). The depth of his remorse for the bitter estrangement from his flesh and blood is almost too much to take. He wants to be at peace and like his current wife who is escaping through medication, so is he. The morphine not only takes away his physical discomfort but his soul discomfort as well. However, it doesn’t seem to wash away all of the unpleasant memories that seem to be flooding his brain.
Phil Parma is an observer, almost like a chronicler of sorts. His angelic presence is calming and charming. He is a peacekeeper and a compassionate man who enjoys the time that he spends with Earl. In a sense, he becomes his confidante and a surrogate son. There is something very childlike about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of this man. The caretaker is an innocent thrust into a world of deceit and duplicities that he is ill-equipped to handle. All he wants to do is give Earl closure so that’s why he goes on a quest to reconcile him with Frank. While this isn’t a huge part, he is very integral to the story because he is the catalyst that connects the Partridges together.
Frank T.J. Mackey is a “running theme” if you will, throughout the movie. He’s the poster boy for the ego, a larger than life persona who has successfully buried his true self. All of his bravado, his “respect the cock, tame the cunt,” rhetoric is smoke and mirrors that masks a little boy who feels alone and adrift in the world. When his mother died, he perceived it to be the ultimate slight. How dare she leave him? He took care of her in her hour of need and now she is abandoning him. This fed his misogynistic belief system because, in his mind, men have to protect themselves and view women as mere pleasure objects. That way, when everything falls apart, they aren’t hurt. It is a coping mechanism and falls right in line with everyone else in this film.
Unfortunately, his performance is the cog in Paul Thomas Anderson’s well-oiled machine. While everyone around him is believable, his “fauxmotion” at Earl’s bedside is over the top and smells of “Academy notice me.” They did and he received a nomination that others in this cast deserved. He was the missing link to connect the Partridges together. Yes, his character was a bombastic, narcissist but we end up not mourning his relationship with his father, who like his mother leaves him alone.
Jimmy Gator is another self-absorbed personality who has millions of adoring fans but like his old friend Earl Partridge who was the producer of his show, What Do Kids Know? he is also dying of cancer. Except he tries to reach out to his “lost” daughter, Claudia. When he pays her a visit in her apartment to tell her he is dying, she can’t cope with the news and in fact becomes hysterical when he appears unannounced. There is a dark secret that binds these two together and it isn’t a pleasant one. She’s a casualty of abuse and incest. Much like Earl who abandoned Frank, Jimmy left Claudia. The minute he touched her in a sexual manner, her father ceased to exist. When he is met at the door by her man du jour, he isn’t shocked. She thinks he feels she is a slut and keeps yelling this at him over and over again. Although Jimmy’s transgression is not her fault, it has turned her into the disconnected being that she is who like Frank, can’t form lasting relationships with the opposite sex. Their interaction with one another is like watching a Shakespearian tragedy.
While Jimmy can’t salvage his broken bond with his daughter, he attempts to clear his guilty conscience by admitting to his stalwart and faithful wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon) that he cheated on her. While that blow registers hard, the hits for her are just going to keep on coming. She always knew that something wasn’t right with Claudia and her husband but she turned a blind eye to it. Now, it starts to become apparent that he was molesting her child. Jimmy cannot admit what he has done. Instead, he puts it off on Claudia making it seem like she “thinks” he had sex with her. Now, he has successfully ruined his relationship with his spouse who in turn, seeks out her daughter to comfort.
Much like Donnie Smith, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a genius and a reigning champion on What Do Kids Know? His television appearances basically give his actor father, Rick (Michael Bowen) carte blanche to go to casting calls since Stanley is the one providing for the two of them. He knows what he does well and is always learning. A prisoner of his intelligence, he is another one like Claudia and Frank that doesn’t know how to interact or connect very well. So, because he is always willing to shoulder responsibility, he is wound a bit too tight.
One of the most heartbreaking scenes in Magnolia occurs when he is told by talent wrangler, Cynthia (Felicity Huffman) that he can’t go to the bathroom until a commercial break. No longer able to focus on answering questions, Stanley quietly has a meltdown as he pees himself on national television. When the lightning round comes up where the kids can finally beat their opponents, the adults, he refuses to be their representative. Ashamed that he has soiled himself, he won’t get up from his seat and he laments, “I’m sick of being the one.” Like all of the other characters in this intertwining tale, he runs from his identity, literally into the night after derailing the show taping to seek solace in the library. The only place he feels comfortable in and where he can truly be himself without repercussions.
The Universe at Play
Magnolia is a perfect depiction of how life works. It is also interesting to note that the title is a reference to the Boulevard that is the main thoroughfare for the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles and it connects quite a few areas together. Much like the way that the universe works.
For the most part, we think we exist in a bubble where our actions have little to no effect on anyone outside our immediate circles. In fact, in some cases, everything is interconnected. Six Degrees of Separation is very real. Usually, one event gets the ball rolling. Everyone’s lives in the film start intersecting when frogs start tumbling out of the sky similar to what happens in the Bible in Exodus. It is all about forgiveness and redemption. Time to tie up loose ends and bring appropriate parties together.
As we can see, every character in Anderson’s opus is like a domino. Earl is connected to Jimmy, Claudia meets Officer Jim because of a noise complaint that is generated by one of her neighbors after her blow up with her father. Jim becomes involved with Donnie after he is driving home from his date with Claudia and sees the “Quiz Kid” trying to break into his former employer’s furniture store after robbing it. Phil locates Frank and brings him home to say goodbye to his dying father. Linda overdoses on pills and is found in her car by a young boy that Jim was talking to after he met Claudia. Jimmy’s indiscretions and disclosures bring about Rose’s reconciliation with their daughter…and so it goes. We can try running from our destiny like most of these characters, we can hide from ourselves but in the end, we can’t fight fate.
Like Aimee Mann’s song, “Wise Up” (1996) states, “It’s not going to stop, ‘til you wise up.” There are no coincidences and these strange things happen all the time…