In the quiz show that links all the characters in Magnolia, contestants strive for the right answer and the stakes are high. That's life to writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights). The characters who crisscross the film are dying, or killing themselves, as they desperately seek an answer to their pain-filled lives. Parents betray children; wives and husbands betray each other. In the course of a day they're pushed past their breaking point, in an over-long, foul-mouthed movie that's frankly difficult to sit through.
Try. Despite the music video trappings, Anderson has a lot to say, including some glimmers of hope. The film is superbly acted by an ensemble cast that includes Tom Cruise (Eyes Wide Shut), Julianne Moore (End of the Affair), and Jason Robards (A Thousand Acres, The Paper). Melora Walters and John C. Reilly give especially engrossing performances as a troubled drug addict and mediocre police officer struggling toward love.
By weighting every little thing with significance, Anderson intrigues the audience in a number of mysteries. Ultimately, everyone's trying to solve the mystery of human relationships. In a cleverly crafted kitchen scene, Officer Jim Kurring (Reilly) struggles to make conversation with Claudia Gator (Walters), after arriving to investigate a disturbance at her apartment. Frank P. T. Whaley (a role Anderson wrote for Cruise) spends his life hawking his Seduce and Destroy method of getting women into bed to rooms full of sweaty, rejected men. Eventually the characters realize: "We may be through with the past but the past isn't through with us." There's a day of reckoning, framed by a Biblical deluge from the sky.
The ambitious film's weakness is the sin of excess. There's simply not enough story to fill three hours. I realize it's painful to cut Robards' death-bed soliloquy or Cruise's overconfident interview with a television reporter, but these scenes merely repeat what we've already figured out.
Magnolia is like a Robert Altman film on speed. An early montage of the characters' sleazy lives sets the stage, the chaotic feeling heightened by frenetic camerawork, an overlapping jumble of songs and the whine of background conversation. The movie soundtrack is practically another character in the film. Aimee Mann's emotive voice punctuates and informs the characters' actions, most poignantly when the camera cuts from location to location and each person is singing the lines of "Wise Up," ending with: "It's not going to stop 'til you wise up, so just give up." Don't give up on Magnolia. It's well worth seeing.