To the degree that its lengthy tale of a well-endowed young comer seemed to suggest autobiography, Boogie Nights foretold the fickle function of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's own cinematic tumidity. The last scene, you'll recall, found the flailing porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) seated before a dressing-room mirror, reciting ludicrous dialogue from an apparent comeback vehicle ("Thirteen inches is a tough load...") in an "allusion" to Raging Bull's allusion to On the Waterfront. And then the money shot, the ultimate product placement, the missing punch line from The Full Monty, in which the twentysomething Anderson made clear that whatever hardships might befall his protagonist, he could still rely on that one "special thing."
Alas, Anderson's Magnolia is the not-so-pretty picture of a special thing that has been taken to the well one too many times. Running a half-hour longer than Boogie Nights, the new film outfits the bulk of the P.T. Anderson troupe in contemporary costume, adding Tom Cruise for good measure in an arty melodrama whose commercial prospects would otherwise be next to nil. (There's a reason the filmmaker speaks so glowingly of his actors--the better to pitch his next project.) In this elaborately woven tapestry of emotional despair in L.A. (it's Short Cuts redux), Cruise plays an oily men's-group televangelist whose sexual self-help shtick ("Respect the cock, tame the cunt!") suggests a shrewder Dirk Diggler. His father (Jason Robards), from whom he's estranged, is dying of cancer, nursed by a man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who nervously orders porno mags for home delivery. (Add Todd Solondz to Anderson's growing list of "influences.") The old man's much younger wife (Julianne Moore) is a pharmaceutically dependent woman who hysterically admits to her lawyer that she doesn't deserve her husband's money ("I sucked other men's cocks!"). As before, women figure prominently in the director's vision: Another strung-out female (Melora Walters) snorts lots of coke and watches TV.
Transparent in the extreme, the faux supernatural Magnolia reads as the auteur's strenuous attempt to justify his many contrived connections by abdicating narrative responsibility to a higher power. "Strange things happen all the time," it is said more than once, and indeed Anderson's epic begins in Mametville with a brief trilogy of tenuously connected short stories involving violent occurrences circa 1911, 1958, and the early Eighties. Skip ahead to 1999, when bizarre coincidence continues to be the name of the game. Seems there's a pair of precocious quiz-show kids, past (William H. Macy) and present (Jeremy Blackman); a second terminal case (Philip Baker Hall) yearning for last-minute reconciliation with his brood; and a paternalistic white cop (John C. Reilly) whose sixth sense pays off bigtime when, investigating a domestic disturbance call in a black woman's apartment, he finds a dead man in her closet. Magnolia is eager to cram in all manner of gratuitous vignettes, although it's funny that, in three hours, Anderson can't find the time to tell what happens to its sole woman of color. (Recall that Boogie Nights gave similarly short shrift to Don Cheadle's black Buck Swope, even as the scene of his rejected bank loan made him bear the brunt of mainstream prejudice against porn.)
Clearly, what's most important to Anderson is his three sets of inattentive show-biz fathers and lonely children--which makes sense, as Magnolia all but cries out for an Altman or Scorsese to remark, "My, what a big movie you have." Adding to the wannabe epic scale are periodic weather reports printed onscreen, an embarrassing montage of the characters somberly lip-synching to the Aimee Mann ballad "Wise Up," and an Old Testament climax that's merely the most obvious evidence of the filmmaker's tendency to equate his perspective with that of the Almighty himself. (Or maybe he just has a thing for Seventies disaster maker Irwin Allen.)
Has there been a more egregiously self-indulgent American film in years? Offscreen, even the director's apparent doubts about maintaining his critical hot-streak merely occasion more unearned arrogance. "I woke up yesterday," he recently told the Village Voice, "really afraid that I'm going to take a beating from the critics. Three hours, baby. Three fucking hours! But I know what I've done. This is unquestionably the best film I will ever make." Yes, indeed--or at least until Anderson delivers a four-hour Victorian costume drama costarring Jim Carrey, Fiona Apple, and a biblical outbreak of mutant chickens.
Magnolia starts Friday at area theaters.
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