I had hoped a film this strong might win a few critics' awards. (To date, only the Toronto group has cited it.) I also hoped it might inspire analysis and debate. But Magnolia is being neither honored nor much discussed; and so, rushing into the near-vacuum, I want to review it in more detail--especially now that it's in wide release, its secrets having been revealed by several critics who should know better. Those of you who haven't seen the picture and want to preserve its surprises intact should stop reading now. All others may join me in pondering how much weight Magnolia will bear.
Let's start with a theme that's announced in a prologue: Some coincidences, especially when they're mortal, are so uncanny as to prompt us to imagine a guiding hand. Unsympathetic reviewers have suggested that this theme is a mere ploy, meant to rescue Anderson from the banality of his individual story lines. I suspect many of these same reviewers would tag as sophomoric the whole question of randomness versus design. True enough: This is the sort of riddle posed at college bull sessions. It's also asked, in a different tone, by the middle-aged at 3:00 am. By raising this theme, Anderson puts himself in a line that runs from the Greek tragedians--those connoisseurs of implacability--to D.W. Griffith, the first great filmmaker to cut between scenes on the basis of theme and not story.
What is montage, that basic tool of the movies, if not the construction of a pattern, devised by a godlike hand that goes unseen by the characters? Far from being a superficial ploy, Anderson's prologue goes to the heart of both drama and filmmaking. The only question is whether the film can live up to the question.
The answer begins with a whiplike montage sequence in which Anderson introduces the characters you'll be following for the next three hours. And, in a sense, he keeps on introducing them. It's not just that he gradually reveals their interrelationships: the business tie between the two dying men, for example, or the sexual loneliness that's shared by the cop (John C. Reilly) and the onetime quiz kid (William H. Macy). Anderson also tricks you into judging these characters, then smilingly changes your mind about them.
A small example: When the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the role of a private nurse, shyly phones a convenience store for a delivery of white bread, cigarettes and three porn magazines, you will certainly guess what's coming next. But the narrative hint turns out to have been a feint; the man has an altruistic use for stroke books. A larger example: A young black kid (Emmanuel Johnson) comes across an obviously wealthy white woman, who is slumped unconscious in her open car. He rifles through her purse--and, having found her cell phone, calls for help. Finally, two glaring examples: Here are Frank (Tom Cruise), a strutting TV preacher of male supremacy, and Claudia (Melora Walters), the coke-addled, bar-trolling daughter of a quiz-show host. Talk about bad first impressions! The whole burden of Magnolia is to show that even these monsters--highly plausible ones at that--may conceal human hearts.
Is this, too, a mere narrative ploy? Not when so many other characters get their chance to be better than expected. A generosity of spirit, which is comic in itself, runs through all of Magnolia--which is fortunate, with that rain of frogs on the way.