Magnolia ★★★★★

It’s not a pretty picture when father’s fall off the mark. When they deliver conditional love. And when they allow themselves to be estranged from their children. Life makes it seem easier, in the moment perhaps, to self-medicate, even though the long term results are a deeply fissured sense of self. Let MAGNOLIA be a reminder to love with all your heart in the face of everything to the contrary. A love so strong it can weather a rain of frogs. 

Shatteringly original. Beyond inspired. An unintentional meditation on fatherhood and the arrested development caused when parental love is conditional. Demands several repeat viewings. It grabs you by the gut and doesn’t let go for a bold three hour run time, which I could watch for another six. PTA has said he’d edited it down if made today. I wouldn’t lose a frame. It’s a beautiful modern masterpiece. Beyond that even, it feels as if PTA has made himself the conduit for the immortal engine of life itself. 

After rewatching a 35mm projection at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday afternoon in late January, I felt as if I’d been re-adjusted at a molecular level, like visiting a chiropractor for my artistic soul. When I think of seminal American films, titles like THE GODFATHER, CITIZEN KANE or even PULP FICTION spring to mind. And as pioneering as these films are there exists an element of theatricality to those works. A self-conscious sense of the arched. In “The Godfather” it’s the Oscar worthy performances that call attention to themselves, in “Citizen Kane” it’s the mind bending compositions of its cinematography that forever wow you and in “Pulp Fiction” the rubiks cube of its narrative construction constantly waves its hand at you. 

MAGNOLIA on the other hand, though winking a little with its rain of frogs and some clever narration, still feels crafted by a silent hand, as if divine intervention itself had taken over the reigns — as if something larger than one man’s voice alone was the grand attempt here. It’s as if one man allowed a space where the forces of creation itself could enter and infuse the narative with celestial juice beyond what is mechanically achievable. Largely this extra-sensory illusion appears to be accomplished by managing such a large ensemble story so seamlessly, packing an 188 minute frame with wall to wall unfiltered truth and raw emotion. 

How does one man alone get an ensemble cast of more than a dozen-and-a-half actors exploding with emotional vulnerability from edge to edge, minute by minute, without a single one faltering or cracking this Fabregé egg? This might be the eighth wonder of the world. A mystery as unknowable as the pyramids themselves. 

Every single member of MAGNOLIA’s ensemble cast is fully committed and totally raw. Each one brings a searing, gut wrenching nakedness to their onscreen presence. Even legendary Hollywood hunk Tom Cruise is compelled to deliver one of the most vulnerable, raw and brave performances of his career. A youthful, glowing Philip Seymour Hoffman sparkles, as he brims with tears frame upon frame. Julianne Moore, on the verge of a breakdown with suicidal ideations, oozes emotional claustrophobia, while lashing out her words with a reptilian sting. Philip Baker Hall as the heart-attack suffering game-show host Jimmy Gator percolates quiet anguish through out combined with his wrenching physical trauma. Melora Walters playing Claudia Wilson Gator, Jimmy’s drug-binging sexually-abused daughter on a coke-bender flies off the rails without restraint in an elongated portrayal of chasing the dragon of addiction. A young John C. Reiley trembles with hope, anxiety and boyish charm looking for love in seemingly the worst of places. William H. Macy infuses every frame with such bottled angst, vitriol and boy-genius self-entitlement, displacing all of it onto an unrequited love spun into a fever dream with the magic elixir being the acquisition of a set of new braces. Henry Gibson, the barfly pressbting Macy’s greatest competition for his infatuation, Brad the bartender, oozes such well oiled charm, moxy and, in a wink, a full life well lived brimming with secrets that would make your head turn, all in mere minutes of screen time. Alfred Molina, likewise makes the most of his one scene as a store owner with a lived-in humanity, hiding a heart behind his business savvy, giving us a character that would otherwise be a one-note story serving trope. Felicity Huffman, even appears at turns whirly with delight and then scolding with fierce matronly chastisement alive with such energy, she practically jumps off the screen. Surely, the chemistry between Macy and Huffman must have had its origins here. 

Jeremy Blackman, playing the young boy genius Stanley Spector infuses his role with such palpable dread combined with a self-awareness of his own loss of childhood, in a performance that seems years ahead in maturity for an actor his age. Luis Guzmán playing himself, providing the adult opposition to the child prodigy, attacks his role with zero sentimentality portraying a shrewd contestant who will give no quarter to a child. As Frank T.J. Mackey, Tom cruise captured a Best Supporting Oscar nomination with his vital performance as an ego-drenched, cock-of-the-walk, male dating coach hit by the news of his fatally ailing, long estranged father in the throes of his last breaths, draws audiences into a vulnerability not often displayed. 

Leaving the legend for last, Jason Robards, in his final on-screen performance, bites into his scenes from his death bed with shrewd lucidity bringing such depth to a hawkish character left a skeleton of what he once was, yet full of such life force he can invoke the far younger Julianne Moore, his trophy wife, to to find such genuine love for him she thereby fills with guilt. 

As a young adult It never even occurred to me  what a meditation on the complexities of fatherhood this film is. Perhaps it took becoming a father myself to see it. MAGNOLIA portrays the results of absentee fathering on Frank T.J. Mackie; the humiliation and suffering caused by aggressive, selfish fathering on the young child prodigy, with the resulting arrested development found in adulthood in the form of William H. Macy’s former boy genius; as well as the damage wrought by transgressive fathering  resulting in the self-medicating Claudia Wilson Gator attempting to heel her own childhood abuse. Is it a coincidence then that the primary battle of the show within a show is between an adult male and a boy-child as the central duelling contestants on a TV game show? 

It’s not a pretty picture when father’s fall off the mark. When they deliver conditional love. And when they allow themselves to be estranged from their children. Life makes it seem easier, in the moment perhaps, to self-medicate, even though the long term results are a deeply fissured sense of self. Let MAGNOLIA be a reminder to love with all your heart in the face of everything to the contrary. A love so strong it can weather a rain of frogs.

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