Last week in my "Making the (Up) Grade" column, I featured Boogie Nights, and confessed my longtime love for the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. The Blu-ray for Boogie Nights looks glorious, and although its bonus materials don't add anything to the slate that existed on standard-definition editions, it's a must-have for almost any film fan, much less an Anderson acolyte. This week, Magnolia is being released alongside its predecessor, and rather than devote more time to saying that all that extra stuff is the same if not purely secondary, I figured I'd see if the film still fares as well as it did a decade ago, when the contact-high of Boogie Nights kept audiences intoxicated enough to ingest anything that Anderson might offer.
Mind you, I've seen Magnolia almost as many times as Boogie Nights, although its sheer girth – not to mention emotional impact has kept me from quite immersing myself in it as often. But with There Will Be Blood looming large as one of the best (if not the best) films of the '00s as people hash out their favorites from the last decade, and the post-coital glow of a recent Boogie Nights screening lingering in my immediate memory, it seemed only appropriate to make Magnolia the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: After premiering in late 1999 for awards season consideration, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia was released January 7, 2000 to a considerable rumble of critical acclaim. Not only did the film net nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Tom Cruise), Best Music (Aimee Mann's "Save Me"), and Best Original Screenplay, it either was nominated for or won Best Picture from groups like the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics Association, and the Las Vegas Film Critics Society. Additionally, Aimee Mann earned another nomination at the Golden Globes for "Save Me," while Cruise won the Best Supporting Actor award for playing Frank T.J. Mackey.
Commercially, the film did modestly well considering its running time (188 minutes) and unconventional subject matter, not to mention style: Magnolia earned a little more than $48 million globally during its theatrical run. Meanwhile, the film has seemed to grow in stature on DVD, where audiences were able to revisit the film or discover it for the first time. Additionally, the film maintains an 82 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Even with ten-plus years and multiple viewings under my belt, it seems impossible to encapsulate the ambition and scope of Magnolia with any sort of description or analysis. Following the success of Boogie Nights, Anderson poured himself into every frame of this incredibly powerful and effective portrait of life in the San Fernando Valley, elevating the lives of otherwise ordinary people to the stuff of the most searing melodrama.
What really works best in the film is how thoughtfully (although seemingly unintentionally) Anderson exploited pop-cultural reflexivity before it became a boilerplate component of virtually all forms of contemporary storytelling. Not to be confused with, say, Tarantino's penchant for pastiche, Anderson condenses his own affection for the conventions of "constructed" storytelling – the idea that a writer or director or artist is controlling the experience and steering the audience towards emotional epiphanies and rewards they wouldn't likely encounter except on film – and acknowledges it even as he subverts those expectations. Case in point, of course, is Philip Seymour Hoffman's telephone conversation where he suggests that the moment he's asking for help is "like a scene in a movie" where someone asks for help; but the entire structure of the film is built on the idea of dovetailing narratives, experiences that clash and collide and come together in ways that change their directions, and most importantly, resonate deeply.
What Doesn't Work: Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little, although I admit I did find some of Anderson's dialogue in a few scenes to be more mannered than the rest. In these cases it appeared as if the writer-director's affection for his own idols and sources of inspiration overtook the fluidity and seeming effortlessness of the rest of his work in the film. But even the strange departures from one vignette to the other – which I admit I've intermittently wondered if was a good decision, particularly during the climax of the film – seem to flow more smoothly, and moreover, make more sense.
For example, when Frank is finally confronting his long-absent father (Jason Robards) on his death bed and the film cuts away to Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) completing his bungled robbery of the electronics store where he worked, that transition pointedly interrupts the flow of Frank's tirade, offers a reprieve from the perhaps otherwise too-dramatic breakdown of this onetime-invincible would-be lothario, and preserves the rest of the film's poetic juggling of so many different story strands. Oh, and as for the frogs? They seem all the more shocking now when they first appear (especially given how safe so much moviemaking has become in the intervening years), and still provide a cathartic deus ex machine that congeals the characters' world and allows the story to wrap itself up as a satisfyingly unified narrative.
What's The Verdict: Magnolia holds up like gangbusters. Anderson's film will always be close to my heart – not the least of which because it's a massive, sentimental, unabashed love letter to the bonds of humanity and the beautiful humanity that redeems us even when we're at our most hurt or hopeless – but I am grateful to report that it has lost none of its resonance. Interestingly, it does seem like a product of a bygone era, in the sense that maybe all of his films seem like they never would or could otherwise have been made if they weren't at that particular time and place. But as far as its effectiveness, entertainment value, and lasting emotional impact, Magnolia is a gorgeous achievement whose appeal will always be perennial.