Magnolia - rated - SIMMERING
Wind Assisted and Interrupted by Rain
Magnolia is the name of a street. It is also the name of this very
adult film. Magnolia the film contains adult concepts: concepts such as
grief and forgiveness, selfishness and selflessness, wisdom and
generosity. It is a mature film dealing with mature issues. It is a
thoughtful film which will leave you thoughful too. It is great in many
ways, but it has just enough wrong with it to put it in my "Simmering"
rather than "Hot Hot Hot" category.
I'll deal with some of the good things first. It has a wonderful
ensemble cast with some terrific performances. Standouts are John C
Reilly (who'll steal your heart), Jason Robards, Melinda Dillon, Melora
Walters, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman (who'll make you
weep), and to a lesser extent Tom Cruise (whose performance is just a
bit showy, but full marks to him for sending up his glamorous image)
and William H Macy (who ends up with just too many gimmicks to ring
true, and yet he has a couple of moments of sheer brilliance).
Unfortunately, the usually-excellent Julianne Moore lets the side down
a bit. She's over the top from the start, which leaves her nowhere to
go for much of the movie. She's too brittle and wild-eyed for us to
warm to. When she calms down, it's just a relief.
Magnolia also has a nice Robert-Altman inspired structure (Writer/
director PT Anderson acknowledges this debt by giving Henry Gibson
(Nashville) a smallish role). This structure results in pacing and
editing which, combined with the riveting performances and generally
intelligent script, keep you going over the whole 3 hours it takes the
story to unfold.
Now to the bad things. First and foremost: the music. Kurosawa said:
"Ever since the silent film gave way to the talkie, sound has
interfered with the image...Real sound does not does not merely add to
the image, it multiplies it." In this case the sound (the film's music)
attempts to completely supplant the image. It is so loud and so
distracting that it mars the film significantly. And mostly what we
have to listen to is stupid and vapidly plaintive ballads composed and
sung by Aimee Mann. Who wants to hear a song which is sung over
dialogue which is much more interesting? At one stage the song lyrics
were something like: "I'm so alone, please help me" while the image we
were seeing were of a person in need who was not crying for help. Talk
about mixed messages! Most of the time I was trying to sift out the
singing from the sound mix and focus in on the talking. Very tiring,
especially in a film of this length. And there was one Dennis
Potteresque moment which was just wrong. The whimsy wasn't there to
justify it. PT Anderson needs better musical assistance. Is he dating
Fiona Apple (whose credit is "Additional Music") by any chance?
For me, the length of the film is a bit of a problem, but only for the
reason that I can see a point at about the 2 hour mark when (after a
few scenes tying the characters together) the film could have ended and
it would have packed an economical punch. Unfortunately, Anderson seems
to feel he needed another hour to say what he wants to say. And to his
credit, he kept me in pretty rapt attention for that last hour (thanks
to the ideas, the structure, the editing and the ensemble cast). So
that's why I think the film is a bit windy. There's another
weather-related theme that comes upon you all in a rush, and I think
the change of gear was a bit at odds with the thoughtful style of the
film, so it jarred. Again, Anderson steers us through this storm
competently, but did we really need this kind of interruption? Usually
this sort of thing happens only in a Coen Brothers film , or when the
scriptwriter is in deep trouble, or both.
Also adding to the length were the prologue and the epilogue. Yes, they
were were clever and interesting and funny, but I didn't need to be
told everything twice, three times or even four times. It's getting to
be a regular theme of these reviews: directors, trust your material.
But I want to end with more of the good things: the ideas. And there
are plenty of them, which will keep you pondering for long after the
film is over. There are a couple of obvious messages and a couple of
less obvious ones. During the film we see many adults (parents and
non-parents) who don't listen to their children. We see children who
don't talk to their parents at all, or until it is almost too late. In
a clever sequence we see in contrast the mechanical ease and the
physical and emotional difficulties of communication, and we see the
intervention of people who have no stake in the process, but who just
help out because they want to. We see selfish people and selfless
people. We see one or two people who know when to speak and when to
listen. And that's the hard bit. Judgement. If we are ever to get to a
point of wisdom, PT Anderson seems to be saying, we need to exercise
our judgement every day.
What a great idea!