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Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Jeremy Blackman, Michael Bowen, William H Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Melinda Dillon, Melora Walters, John C Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emmanuel Johnson.

Round about now, it is perhaps time we identified and named a new sub-genre in American cinema, to join ‘mystery-suspense’, ‘comedy-thriller’, ‘sci-fi’, ‘film noir’, ‘big budget action’, ‘slasher’, ‘horror’, and whatever you’re having yourself. It is the ‘Fucked-up Americans with Traumas’ line (hereinafter referred to as F.A.T.). Recent examples of F.A.T. include: In The Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbours, Happiness, and Very Bad Things. You know the spiel by now: a ‘deeply moral’ director adopts an ‘amoral’ stance to show us how self-centred, vacuous and destructive most modern American lives are, and how society is ultimately to blame. For the most part they eschew humour or any trace of light and shade, just in case we don’t quite get the message. This tendency finds a precursor in a noble strand of the great tradition of American theatre, the one where family members get smashed together, and then proceed to tell each other exactly what they think of each other. Examples include: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? and A Streetcar Named Desire. At the endurance test of 3 hours 10 minutes, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia gives even Todd Solandz’s Happiness a run for its money in the fattest of the F.A.T. marathon.




Magnolia purports to present a microcosm of American society, by following a number of loosely intertwined characters on one random day in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California: a dying father, his young wife, his male nurse, his famous lost son, a bumbling police officer in love, a boy genius, his exploitative father, an ex-boy genius, a game show host, his long-suffering wife, his estranged daughter, and a street kid who is the budding neighbourhood rapper.
The one unifying thread is the quiz show What Do Kids Know?, produced by the man on his deathbed, Earl Partridge (Robards). He cheated on his first wife, and didn’t stand by her during her own final illness, thus alienating his son, Frank Mackey (Cruise), who has gone on to become a television guru of macho self-help programme Seduce and Destroy. Phil Parma (Hoffman) is the nurse trying to broker a reconciliation between them. Linda (Moore) is the wife who married Partridge for his money, and realises too late that she has fallen in love with him.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Gator (Hall), who hosts the show, is also dying of cancer, and is an icon of family values whose private life belies his public image. His ever-faithful wife Rose (Dillon), is about to hear his final, worst confession. Their coke-addict daughter Claudia (Walters), wants to tell someone about the incest perpetrated by her father. Maybe Officer Jim Kurring (Reilly), who turns up at her apartment for a routine investigation, might just fit the bill.
That leaves Stanley Spector (Blackman), a child genius tired of trying to win his father Rick’s (Bowen) love by performing on What Do Kids Know?, while Pop lives off his son’s brilliance; Donnie Smith (Macy) as a ‘60s star of the show, now struggling to hang on to his electronics store job; and Dixon (Johnson), the chorus-like con artist or street poet.
Except, it isn’t unified at all, but sprawling, diffuse and over-long, lurching from one extended emotional revelation to the next. The several quasi-surreal touches, and the mammoth one at the end, reminiscent of television’s takes-itself-oh-so-seriously and thinks-its-oh-so-clever Ally McBeal, just don’t work at all. Any old combination of images will not do. Anderson is obviously trying to make some Paul Auster-ish point about the role of chance in everyday life, but it feels contrived, the result of necessity, rather than naturally occurring.
Not that there aren’t some crumbs to be rescued from this stretched-beyond-its- limits mess. Like Aimee Mann’s soundtrack (except for the cringe-inducing scene where every member of the cast starts singing one of the songs in sequence), the willingness to deal with the reality of terminal illness (except do only adulterous men get cancer?), and most of the ensemble performances (except Cruise goes O.T.T.).
But what really makes this effort all the more disappointing is that it comes from someone who, as the maker of the marvellous Boogie Nights, understands what epic scope entails. The best contemporary F.A.T.-free American movies - off the top of my head: The Truman Show, The Opposite of Sex, Rushmore, American Beauty - succeed due to sharpness of script, roundedness of storyline, understatement, and the fact that we come to care about characters we feel compassion towards. Also, they come in on time. Magnolia has few of these qualities, but stretches things too far, so that F.A.T. becomes thin.
Now who was it who spoke of an Evil Empire?

First published in Film Ireland













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