It’s not far-fetched to say that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s audacious new film is about everything. After all, he tackles the big themes: love and death, sin and redemption. But at its core, Magnolia is a film about repercussions, particularly the way the sins of the father play out in the warped lives of his children.
"I really do have love to give," says Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) – "I just don’t know where to put it." His sentiment perfectly sums up Magnolia’s central characters, emotional anchorites who have constructed elaborate walls between themselves and the outside world. When he was a "quiz kid" on a popular 1960s television game show, Smith could answer incredibly difficult questions with ease, but his great expectations evaporated when he reached adulthood and realized there was little practical use for his arcane knowledge.
Child prodigy Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is the current star of "What Do Kids Know?," a quiz show where kids compete against adult contestants. He’s single-handedly orchestrated his team’s winning streak, but the socially isolated Stanley may end up sharing Donnie’s sad-sack fate. His father, Rick (Michael Bowen), is a distracted and self-involved actor who enjoys the reflected glory of Stanley’s fame but doesn’t provide any support or guidance.
The long-running "What Do Kids Know?" is the product of two men who would never receive accolades for their parenting skills: creator Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Each man has alienated his only child, and seeks reconciliation only when faced with his own mortality.
Partridge is literally on his deathbed, cared for by a compassionate nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), instead of his much younger trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore). Earl asks Phil to contact his son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a macho motivational speaker who believes men have become emasculated by strong women. His company, Seduce and Destroy (motto: "Respect the cock!"), provides instruction on the sexual domination of these elusive goddesses.
After he’s diagnosed with cancer, Jimmy Gator is urged by his loving, long-suffering wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon), to make contact with his estranged daughter, Claudia (Melora Walters). But the resentful Claudia, existing on a steady diet of cocaine and anonymous sex, reacts violently to his visit, which brings Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) to her door. A dim-bulb police officer who recites moral soliloquies to boost his confidence (imagine Jack Webb of "Dragnet" as a Jesuit philosopher), Kurring immediately identifies Claudia as a lost soul, someone he can save.
Magnolia is beautifully structured, allowing time for the various stories to unfold as this large collection of characters traverses the same terrain. (The title is the name of a street, a main thoroughfare through the San Fernando Valley.)
The raw emotions of the film are expressed not only in the uniformly superb performances (including small, but pivotal roles such as Henry Gibson’s deliciously smarmy barfly and April Grace’s poised, persistent and probing interviewer), but through its unconventional use of music. Aimee Mann’s songs serve as a kind of narrative voice, commenting on and interacting with the action onscreen. In an extremely bold move, Anderson has the camera glide over the principal characters as they sing along with Mann on "Wise Up." It’s a reminder of what a good musical can do: By breaking down standard movie "reality," it allows characters to express in song what they feel but cannot otherwise articulate.
In Boogie Nights, Anderson showed how emotionally vulnerable people created a familylike structure in order to protect themselves from being exploited. Magnolia explores the inverse: parents who either allow or perpetuate the exploitation of their children. It’s about the damage done in the name of family.
"We may be through with the past," characters repeatedly assert in Magnolia like a mantra, "but the past is not through with us." Believe them.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.