Taking place in California's San Fernando Valley, Magnolia concerns several interdependent storylines about troubled relationships: a wealthy dying man (Jason Robards), his estranged son (Tom Cruise), and the dying man's young wife (Julianne Moore); a game-show host (Philip Baker Hall) who is also dying, his estranged daughter (Melora Walters), and the daughter's new boyfriend (John C. Reilly); a young genius on the game show (Jeremy Blackman), the boy's greedy father (Michael Bowen), and an aging former contestant on the show (William H. Macy).
With its multiple storylines, swooping crane shots, shock cuts and nearly identical cast, Magnolia instantly evokes Anderson's superior breakout hit, Boogie Nights, his survey of the Southern California porn industry in the 1970s and '80s. Ironically, Anderson's first feature, Hard Eight, still remains his best work, a tough, concise neo-noir homage to Robert Bresson's Pickpocket.
The flawed but entertaining Boogie Nights lacked economy and a clear point of view, but at least it showcased interesting characters and a provocative topic. Magnolia, on the other hand, reveals Anderson's philosophy that 'bigger is better' (something that Cruise's sexist sex guru character might say) by attenuating the traditionally intimate family melodrama into epic proportions. His latest film again lacks a clear focus, but the characters this time are poorly sketched and the subject matter is trite (until it becomes downright foolish).
It would be one thing if Magnolia offered multiple points of view, but Anderson is really only concerned with his own: a heavy-handed, self-pitying indictment of bad parenting and its sorry effects. Anderson expands his timeworn theme with a motif about chance and destiny, recalling the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Thorton Wilder's literary classic, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. But the attempts at humor and profundity here fall sadly short. The connections to Altman are even more apparent: the authorial distance and irony; the Short Cuts-type setting, characters and tone; the use of actors Henry Gibson (Nashville), Michael Murphy (Tanner '88), and Philip Baker Hall (Secret Honor); and the seeming use of improvisation in single long takes.
Yet Anderson shows a real ineptitude at developing the Altman-style tapestry. His biggest technical failing is the way he crosscuts scenes, but mismatches the temporal relationships. For example, whole minutes in one sequence break up the mere seconds in another sequence as Stanley, the boy genius, decides not to continue playing the tawdry game show. For the sake of drama, Anderson also allows a lot of contrivance into the otherwise 'realistic' scenes, such as where Tom Cruise's character sits through a lengthy interview interrogation without leaving or at least lashing back. (Cruise's self-conscious acting doesn't help much, either.) In a less significant way, Anderson just gets plain sloppy with details e.g., a backlight noticeably bounces off William H. Macy's glasses in one lengthy shot.
Despite the fine work by some non-Anderson regulars (Jeremy Blackman, Melora Walters and Melinda Dillon are particularly good), Magnolia undermines their efforts by becoming loopy in the final hour: In a sequence destined to become a camp classic, all the principal characters (including two who are nearly dead!) sing Aimee Mann's song, 'Wise Up,' in various settings. Anderson might have been thinking of the dying soldiers who sang Prokofiev's opera on the battlefield of Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, but the results hew closer to the dregs of 'Cop Rock.'
Even more absurd is the biblical-style hailstorm climax featuring large frogs that splatter over everyone and everything. This section symbolizes a plague on the houses of the morally corrupt characters, but Anderson's true inspiration must have been Exorcist II: The Heretic's wild locust storm. One day, no doubt, Magnolia will be re-evaluated as an underappreciated masterwork (Anderson's signature is certainly distinct), but right now it's overlong, self-indulgent and often laughable. As Julianne Moore's character so aptly puts it, 'This is so fucked up and over the top, I can't stand it!' By the end of Magnolia, the only sympathetic character is little Stanley, who urinates in his pants when he is forced to sit through the game show. With aching backs and full bladders, Magnolia's viewers will feel the same way.