"Magnolia" is a soap opera. You can dress it up, call it what you will but in the end its just "Days of Our Lives" with better production values. Which is a shame really because in this three hour plus film, there's about an hour's worth of footage which is easily some of the best filmmaking in years - these are the moments where it pulls itself out of the relatively weak drama to become something of a quirky black comedy.
The best comparison I can come up with to this is Robert Altman's interesting though similarly soapy "Short Cuts". Its a 'slice of life' film which looks at a day in the lives of a handful of people who are linked together in some way - In other words its a series of sub-plots, each involving a character going through some struggle (a recent example would be "200 Cigarettes").
The problem with these kind of films is that there is no real main plot or storyline to follow so the 'payoff' element you get in most movies won't apply here and you leave wondering "what's the point?". Its like pornography without the cum shots, the start is pretty much the same as the end, there's no sense of completion.
The other problem inherent to these tales is that people are going to like one character a lot more than others and get pissed when they come to the storylines they dislike. So here's my opinions of them, sorted by the actor each one centers on:
Tom Cruise: Cruise easily steals the show as the ultimate chauvinist - a self-help guru who teaches men how to "seduce and destroy", or in other words how to be a macho prick. From his very un-PC opening line, Cruise shows right from the start he's doing something completely different than he's ever done.
The storyline goes from comic, to intriguing, to a teary drama. Cruise handles all his scenes superbly right till his big cry scene near the end which was good, but just not entirely convincing. Still, certainly a role worth an Oscar nomination. Also a great understated supporting performance from April Grace who plays a reporter investigating him.
John C. Reilly: The moral center for the film, this was a quite interesting storyline to follow though some cuts could've happened such as his bit with the kid.Julianne Moore,
Jason Robards & P.S. Hoffman: Probably the only storyline which worked on a properly emotional level. Once again Moore delivers the goods with a performance far better than the part justifies, her scene in the drug store is great. Some of Robards monologues do go on a bit, but besides that this storyline easily is the film's highlight.
William H. Macy: Completely unneeded sub-plot about a love-lost ex-child genius infatuated with a barkeep. Dump it.
Jeremy Blackman: A child genius being pushed too much by his father - like THAT hasn't been done before. Jettison it.
Melora Walters: She sniffs drugs all day and night - BOOORRRING!!! Her scenes with Reilly though make it watchable.
P. Baker Hall: The dying game show host, once again completely unneeded and uninvolving.
The moments that really click in this film are those quirky bits which are elements of pure genius. From the darkly humoured opening about tragically stupid deaths that are the kind the Darwin Awards are made for, to a very unique 'rain storm' near the end which is hilarious and filmed with some amazing camera work.
These kind of moments show that if Director Paul Thomas Anderson ever wanted to do a hard core black comedy, no-one could do much better and as a director he certainly knows his stuff. He also makes great use of music in the movie with the opening remix of the classic song "One", to the quite moving "Wise Up" which all the main cast provide backing for.
For now though he's sticking to these rather self-indulgent long ensemble dramas which, while having some great elements, aren't going to click with mainstream audiences. Not only because like Stephen King he needs an editor, but also this (and to a lesser extent "Boogie Nights") is basically a group of decentralised storylines held together by a very thin main plot - and thus there's no real drive or focus behind it.
If some of the storylines had been cut out, and the rest were more 'ingrained' with the others, then this would certainly overcome a lot of the problems. As it is though, Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and Doug Liman's "Go" remain the two best ensemble dramas of this kind in recent years - the former for its ultra violence & attitude, the latter for its super-fast pacing and very clever script.
In the end like I said this is a soap opera. The kind of movie you watch when you're feeling down because it will remind you there's people out there whose lives are far more pathetic and fucked up than yours and consequently leaves you feeling better. If you can't wait for the next "Party of Five" episode and are willing to give up several dollars and sit through the 188 minute running time then by all means, check it out