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Lord High Executioners | The Nation

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Lord High Executioners

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By coincidence, Topsy-Turvy opens in New York on the same day as Magnolia, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights). Both pictures are, in my mind, contenders for Best Film of the Year. Both are ensemble productions, rather than star vehicles; and both take place in the world of show business. (The core set of Magnolia is a TV studio, where the live broadcast of a game show is in progress.) But since nothing in Magnolia happens "by coincidence," I might have to dream up some spooky end-of-the-millennium theory to account for the double opening.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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While waiting for inspiration to strike, I'd better just describe the events. In crude terms, Magnolia is a 24-hours-in-LA movie, in which disparate characters knock around and intersect. Immobile in the center of this action is a wealthy older man (Jason Robards), dying of cancer, who asks his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to locate his estranged son. The son (Tom Cruise) turns out to be a strutting, leather-clad TV pitchman for himself: a vendor of videotapes and daylong seminars, in which he preaches about male conquest of the female (otherwise known as the "sperm receptacle").

Meanwhile, a famously avuncular game-show host (Philip Baker Hall) is visiting his daughter (Melora Walters) to inform her that he, too, is dying of cancer. Scarcely bothering to wipe the cocaine from her nose--it's about eight in the morning--she screams obscenities at him and orders him from her apartment. At the same time, in another part of LA, a seriously self-involved actor (Michael Bowen) is impatiently driving to school his young son (Jeremy Blackman), the hard-pressed star contestant on the game show.

To judge from the books he carries, the boy is a student of odd phenomena, and of events that collide in such striking ways that more than coincidence seems to be at work. He'd want to know that a former quiz kid (William H. Macy), who "once was smart and now is just stupid," has lost his job this morning and is feeling exceptionally desperate; that a good-hearted but inept cop (John C. Reilly) has just met the game-show host's daughter and is willing to ignore the vast evidence of substance abuse in order to ask for a date; that the dying tycoon's young wife (Julianne Moore) is driving around town collecting her own stock of controlled substances, for purposes yet unknown.

I can tell you all this about Magnolia; but then I have to stop. The events in the film are ultimately so outrageous, and yet are prepared for so well, that I can neither point toward the climax nor write my way around it. I am like a geographer of Colorado, sworn to secrecy about the Rockies. Worse: Though God does not give you a broad wink when you drive across the western border of Kansas, Paul Thomas Anderson keeps signaling to the audience, in ways I can't fully describe and yet can't ignore. He even has the nerve, midway through the film, to wave a sign in front of you, bearing the film's ending in plain characters. Let those who have eyes read.

Here's as much as I can licitly say: Magnolia takes as its theme the sins of the fathers visited upon the children. ("Use your regrets," Robards croaks, again and again, in the guilt-stricken monologue that gives the film its moral center.) The style is virtuosity itself. (Anderson, single-handed, justifies the invention of the Steadicam.) Each actor gets at least one great scene to play; and the performances are all so rich that Tom Cruise, giving the big star turn that's called for by his role, seems at the same time to be just another member of the ensemble.

What conjunction of the planets made possible Magnolia, in combination with what anomaly of film-world economics, I cannot guess; nor have I figured out the meaning of its advent side-by-side with Topsy-Turvy. So, instead of speculating on these insane complexities, I will dwell instead on simplicity. Magnolia, for all its virtuosity, ends with the blossoming of a single smile. The film's final meaning is that plain, and that moving.

Go, please, before I break down and tell you more.

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