Rated R - Running Time: 2:59 - Released 12/17/99

If any film could be described as "art for art's sake," it would be Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. Beautifully produced, intensely acted, full of stunning imagery and oblique metaphor, Magnolia is a powerful statement of writer/director/producer Anderson's artistic vision. Whatever that vision is. At three hours long, one would expect the film to give a clearer idea of the point he is trying to make, but I daresay any two viewers could come away with radically different interpretations.

It has become a popular trend in films to tell several seemingly unrelated stories at once, zipping back and forth between them like a TV viewer clicking his remote. This style can be seen in films like Playing By Heart, Go, and just about anything by Quentin Tarantino. But in those films, the stories eventually tie together. In Magnolia, their connection is tangential at best.

First, there's elderly TV producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is dying of cancer and lapses in and out of consciousness while his selfless nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his guilt-ridden, unfaithful wife (Julianne Moore) try their best to make him comfortable. During one of his lucid moments, Jimmy asks to see his estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise). Frank is the leader of Seduce & Destroy, a sexist self-help program designed to teach men to sexually and psychologically control women. Frank leads his rallies like Hitler in those old newsreels, but when he finally does reunite with his dying father, the sparks really fly.

In story number two, a lonely police officer named Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) falls in love with a woman who plays her stereo too loudly and snorts huge amounts of cocaine. Claudia (Melora Walters), who appreciates the attention from Jim but knows her habit would never allow them to form a relationship, is the daughter (also estranged) of TV personality Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Jimmy emcees the quiz show What Do Kids Know?, in which children are matched up against adults in a trivia challenge. Jimmy has just found that he too is dying of cancer, but must continue to host a show in which a smart, browbeaten kid (Jeremy Blackman) is pressured to lead his team to victory despite the fact that he urgently has to use the bathroom.

Story number three is about former quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who became famous as a youngster on What Do Kids Know? but has hit hard times. His attempt to be taken seriously by a male bartender whom he is attracted to is dashed by the bitter derision of a suave socialite named, of all things, Thurston Howell (played not by Jim Backus but Laugh-In vet Henry Gibson). Unable to stand the rejection, Donnie goes off the deep end and embarks on a desperate plan.

These stories all roll toward their own separate crescendos apparently unaware of each other, with lots of pathos and melodrama. Then an event happens that, while it doesn't really tie them together, definitely affects them all. It also takes the film fully into the realm of surrealism. I won't reveal what it is, but let's just say you'd better have a very sturdy umbrella.

I get the impression that Anderson is attempting to emulate Oliver Stone here. His film is heavy on the art, heavy on the symbolism, and light on credibility. It begins and ends with historic tales of bizarre events that seem too coincidental to be true, but with the claim that it all actually happened. His actors put forth some very powerful performances, especially Cruise, Reilly, Macy, Hoffman, and Moore. Any one of these stories could be its own movie; the characters I've mentioned represent only a fraction of the multitude of speaking parts in the film.

Music is as much a presence as any person in Magnolia; there are times when it is nearly impossible to hear the dialogue because of the pounding chords and vocals washing over the proceedings. This trend starts at the film's opening, with a 20-minute version of Three Dog Night's "One," by Aimee Mann, and reaches its climax when all the characters are at one point seen singing the same song. The music involving Cruise's emotional reunion with his father is particularly affecting. Or annoying, depending on how you look at it.

Is it art raised to its highest form, or simply the pretentious masturbation of a wealthy director who has found the backing to put it on the screen? That's up to the viewer to decide, but in any case, Magnolia is certainly fascinating. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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