Magnolia ★★★★★

You know when you love a movie so much that you basically render yourself incapable of explaining why you love it so much? Yeah. There's a reason I've been afraid to review Magnolia in the all the time I've been on Letterbox'd.

People talk about first love. You know, the cut that goes the deepest. That special individual who first claimed your heart and will forever hold a piece of it captive. Magnolia wasn't my first love (that title belongs to an actual girl, thank you very much) but as far as films go, it hit all the right spots and triggered all the right desires. It was, as Donnie would describe, "that intangible joy in the pit of your stomach like a bucket of acid and nerves running around, making you hurt and happy and all over..."

Okay, more or less.

But it would be hard to overestimate the distance for which I fell head over heals. Over the years I've watched a lot of films, many that are now my favourites... but nothing has quite made me feel like Magnolia made me feel. What more can I say? It was a first love thing.

If I had to put my finger on that one thing that makes Magnolia so special, it's the characters. I'm not just thinking about Frank, Jim, Claudia and the other "main" characters who eventually participate in the Aimee Mann sing-along. I'm thinking of Dr. Landon, Linda's long-suffering lawyer who patiently listens to her lose all emotional sanity. I'm thinking of Burt Ramsey, who puts his hand on Jimmy's shoulder before the curtain opens and the show starts: "We met upon the level and we're parting on the square." I'm thinking of Thurston, the oddly compelling conversation companion for Donnie in the bar. I'm thinking of Gwenovier. Of Dixon. Of that kind elderly neighbour who lends her car to Donnie near the end of the film. To say this is an ensemble film would be a gross understatement. It is literally everyone.

Paul Thomas Anderson's passion project of passion projects literally breaths in the small moments. It's all the little things that other directors would never even consider, not only because they look unnecessary on paper but because they risk letting too much sentiment leak out. Anderson takes those risks, and the result is unquestionably melodrama. From a critical perspective, Anderson shows his true talent for cinema in later films like There Will Be Blood and The Master. Those films are patient and calculating, letting subtleties do much of the talking. Magnolia on the other hand is breathlessly urgent, emotionally excessive and exhaustively heart wrenching.

Sort of like first love.

Magnolia simply demands repeats. Not only to better understand the plot, or to spot all the little Exodus 8:2 references, but to become better acquainted with the characters. There's character depth unlike anything you thought you knew about character depth. It's all compounded, so that each layer feeds into the next and informs a web of character relationships that fight for attention while also pointing at each other. To attempt such an intricate mosaic would be absolutely foolhardy, and Anderson could well be the only filmmaker in the world who can pull it off. Magnolia will never be made again, and there is absolutely nothing like it. It is a remarkable capsule of sadness and beauty, encompassing basically everything you could want from an energetic ensemble film and so, so much more.

My favorite scene is when Jim and Claudia are on their date. It's also the scene with the most awkward, first-drafted dialogue in the entire script. That's okay. Claudia is a self-tormented, emotional wreckage of a person with more addictions and baggage than most people could imagine. Jim is a humble Christian man who grins sheepishly when someone says "shit" and who's most shameful secret is losing his gun and facing embarrassment in the workforce. For some reason, these two people are at a restaurant together groping for romantic connection. And when they kiss, the camera rushes forward, and I fucking dare you to name a better kiss scene in the last twenty years.

For Jim, this is the first real step outside his emotional comfort zone. For Claudia, this is first love. She has no idea how to handle it. She runs out. "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?"

...well, you know how the film ends.

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