"It would seem that we're through with the past, but it's not through with us."
Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of Magnolia, needs to learn one of the most basic rules of storytelling: The audience has to care about your characters. This requires the characters to be at least a little likable. Decent people with deep flaws make for compelling fiction. Deeply flawed people with little or no decency disgust the audience, and then, when you stretch out their stories for three agonizing hours, bore them.
With the exception of Jim, the incompetent cop, and Claudia, the cokehead he's attracted to, most of the characters in the film are completely unlikable. They are either vile or losers. (Jim and Claudia are losers, but they're likable losers.) The characters have long, often pointless conversations while we keep waiting for something to happen and looking for some reason to care. We are seldom rewarded for our patience. (Yes, PTA, long tracking shots can be very cool, but something is supposed to happen during them.)
All the performances are very good, and a few are outstanding. Tom Cruise was especially good as the egomaniac who has become wealthy teaching geeks how use deceit and manipulation to get laid. William H. Macey turns in a great performance as a pathetic guy who can't deal with the fact his fifteen minutes of fame are over. Each of the characters are unique and well played. To bad we can't bring ourselves to give a damn about them.
Someone needs to sit the music editor down and explain that background music is supposed to be in the background. It frequently overpowers the scenes, sometimes to the point of making it difficult to hear the conversations. The opening credits start with a maudlin version of "One is the Loneliest Number," which seems to last forever as it overpowers scene after scene. When it's finally, mercifully finished it's almost a relief to be subjected to a shrill slummer screeching at a cop for far too long. (The cop discovers a dead guy in her closet, and we never learn anything more about the body or the screeching woman.) But soon the music overpowers us again, and it's often uninspired and annoyingly repetitive. Once it becomes so overwhelming the characters start signing along with it, including the guy in the morphine induced coma.
I sat through three butt-numbing hours of this arty self-indulgence, mistakenly believing it couldn't get any worse. Then, towards the end of the move, huge juicy bullfrogs started raining from the sky, splattering on everything, breaking windows, causing accidents of all sorts and slightly freaking out the characters. No foreshadowing prepared us for it, and when it's over no explanation is offered. When it's done characters continue on as if nothing had happened, unchanged by the experience. I can only think of one possible explanation. This movie was so unspeakably bad that God Himself tried to put an end to the filming buy calling forth a plague he hadn't used for five thousand years. Unfortunately, it didn't work; the producers just left it in the movie. We can only hope He tries harder next time. Maybe Anderson would get the hint if He made it rain scissors.
Plot Holes: Who killed Mr. Body?
© 2001 Dave Hitt