This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Naman Gidwani’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
"What can we forgive?"
Coming off his success of Sydney (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997), Paul Thomas Anderson set out to make, as described by him, a ‘small and cheap’ movie and ended up writing the story of our lives and directing a movie that perfectly encapsulates the zeitgeist.
Mosaic. This word has been dropped in thousands of reviews and damn me for not finding another, but it is the word that says it all.
Magnolia is an intelligently choreographed march and concert of raw emotions, everyday life and broken characters. An orchestral but grounded odyssey of people in search of happiness, forgiveness and second chances in the San Fernando Valley, a setting that acts as a sample for all life around the globe.
The title of the film makes its nature clear from the very beginning. While referring to a boulevard in California, Magnolia also symbolizes the delicate flower that is our world, a mosaic of interrelated stories and characters all brought together by and working around one body, life.
A 3 hour long epic, the movie starts off with a swift narrator recounting three independent and random tales of strange and surreal coincidences that set the mood for the themes and emotions the audience is about to journey through.
We are then met with hours of emotionally exhausting, familiar yet fresh beats that build up expectations and make the audience yearn for a satisfaction, a raison d'être that binds and concludes the different stories. Where much like life, which this cinematic tale mimics, viewers are met with something completely unexpected and strange, to say the least.
A major drive in this movie is learning to deal and reconcile with one’s past, and since it is impossible to watch this film untethered from your own past and experiences, it is also impossible to analyze the film without first looking at its creation process.
Paul Thomas Anderson has always considered ‘families’ to be an endless source and ammunition for great storytelling and that fact is reflected in his creation. He was also inspired a lot from the songs of Aimee Mann that have therefore been featured in the movie.
While approaching the script, Paul’s intentions, as highlighted in an interview, had always been to write all that he could and when he is all written out, to hit the audience with, the now officially/unofficially dubbed, ‘That Moment’ in the movie which also became the title of its making-of documentary.
Given its unique and vulnerable structure, the movie could have, very easily, been a mess if it weren’t for the expert direction and the wonderful crew working on the project. The editors had a huge responsibility in making sure that the pacing of the movie supports its runtime and Robert Elswit, the director of photography had to give it his all to deliver on the demands of the scale and style of the narrative. Moreover, frequent collaborator, Jon Brion tied the whole movie together with his grand yet subtle score that always pulled the movie along and let it breathe where necessary.
However, all a crew does is set the stage and foundation for the actors to dance on, and that is where the life of the movie lies – the acting.
Paul Thomas Anderson is known for being able to direct and extract brilliant performances from the actors he works with. The environment he creates to allow the actors to deliver vulnerable and true performances is praised throughout the industry.
Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly among many others return to PTA’s workspace joined by Tom Cruise to form the A-list ensemble that leads this movie. You might relate to the lonely and oft ignored cop played by John Reilly, the good for nothing has-been embodied by William H. Macy or you might even see yourself in the flamboyant and misogynistic Frank TJ Mackey brilliantly portrayed by Tom Cruise in his golden globe winning role.
The only reason these characters become so familiar and relatable is because of the raw and honest performances given by the cast.
Themes & That Moment
The film juggles a lot of stories and characters and with it, tackles a lot of themes while portraying the urban malaise and angst.
As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest talks of the movie is about the past. We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. Parent-children relationships are at the core of this movie and go a long way in showing how they inform and shape how you grow up.
Throughout the movie we see characters trying to control their lives and free themselves from the ghosts of their past, be it childhood abuse or ignored potential. However, they are met with nothing but unresolved issues, regrets and friction.
After a lot of struggle and pain, we see the characters finally facing their demons in the third act of the movie. Each and every character goes through a heavy and inexplicable internal collision of emotions which is when Anderson cues in That Moment.
A Rain of Frogs. As bizarre and strange as it sounds, this rain proves to be a sequence of great release and catharsis. One can only match the level of internal struggle the characters in the movie have faced with this event of biblical proportions. What arguably becomes the best use and example of pathetic fallacy in a movie also makes way for drawing various meanings and inferences.
It is human nature to blow things out of proportion, to make it seem as though our problems are bigger than they actually are or that they matter in the long run. The event that finally concludes and caps off this film goes to show how all human life is merely incidental in the grand scheme of things. It offers a sense of relief in showing an event greater than them that trumps all the problems and emotions they’ve been feeling.
"Living to get older, with a chip on your shoulder,
Except you think you got a grip, 'cause your hip got a holster."
It shatters both the illusion of control that the characters in the movie are trying to hold on to and the expectations of the viewer that have been building for hours. The characters all learn that living in the past, obsessing with events that have shaped them, assigning blame, rushing to guilt, helps nothing.
The dysfunctionality of life is suddenly grounded and the film ends in the most logical way it could, a long take and focus on a character’s face who is being consoled by another, and a simple smile.
Marking the last shot of the movie, Aimee Mann sings…
“…won’t you save me, from the ranks, of the freaks,
who suspect, they could never love anyone.”
Some people go through their whole lives believing that they’re undeserving of love and hence anyone who does try to love them is in turn considered undeserving too. The final lines sung before the credits roll therefore, perfectly capture the human predicament of self doubt and guilt, summing up the movie.
It is this undying and ubiquitous affliction that makes this THE movie of our generation and relevant even 20 years after its release solidifying Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the greatest writers/directors of our time.
This turned into an all-over-the-place breakdown near the end so if you made it down here, thank you for reading. Magnolia has basically become my comfort movie and there is still so much stuff I want to talk about and ponder over.
Check out my ranking which keeps changing of all PTA movies here.
Take care and wise up.