Magnolia: Nashville-lite

by Gary Gordon

     What did you do today? Exactly. And why? And who did you meet? Did it change your path? Were there happy coincidences? Bad news? Tragedy? Did anything go as planned? Did anything exceed expectations? How do you form your expectations?
     This is the territory of the engaging film, Magnolia, written and directed by P.T. Anderson, and starring Tom Cruise, John Reilly, Julianne Moore and a host of others.
     His theme: strange things happen, as in the case of the three robbers in England whose last names combined formed the name of the street where they committed their robbery; as in the case of the scuba diver who was scooped up by a firefighting water-bearing plane and dumped on a forest fire; as in the case of the boy who was accidentally shot by his mother while he was committing suicide; as in the case of the events of one particular day on Magnolia, a lengthy street in the Valley, a lengthy tall but mostly realistic tale.
     But first, let's get the movie review stuff out of the way: the directing is excellent, the acting is tremendous by everyone, including Cruise; the writing is where the weaknesses lie-- more on that in a bit. The length-- well, sports fans, it's long, but it is engaging, and the music and weave of the characters' pursuits and collisions keeps it moving.
     And let's have this warning: there is no way to seriously discuss this film without revealing a startling event that occurs in the third act, so if you haven't seen the film, rent Robert Altman's Nashville and see Magnolia, then come back to this commentary and we'll talk.
     The above reference to Altman is specific, for in Magnolia, Anderson borrows heavily from Altman's style of casting and storytelling.
     Magnolia is the story of several people: a cop (Reilly), a junkie daughter (Melora Walters) whose father (Philip Baker Hall) is a gameshow host, a young quiz kid, a former quiz kid champion (Bill Macy), the gameshow host's estranged wife (Melinda Dillon in a part of the story that's a little unclear), a wealthy bar-fly named Thurston Howell (and played by Altman ensemble regular Henry Gibson), a self-help entrepreneur (Cruise) who teaches men how to bed women-- any woman they want; a dying man (Jason Robards) and his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his medicated wife (Julianne Moore), and like many of Altman's films, it's the story of how these people are connected and in some instances how they collide, and how that changes their day.
     And that description only scratches the surface.
     Each character is well-drawn, filled with anxieties, missions, carrying pain and other baggage, exhibiting hope and frustration and desire, generosity and selfishness and self-pity-- these are well-written, three dimensional, human characters the like of which we don't usually see in movies. And the level of tension is exacting. Unless I missed it, the only, genuine, relaxed smile comes at the very end of the film.
     But to some extent, this is an anti-movie movie. With his intriguing beginning (the tales of the robbers, the scuba diver and the murder/suicide) Anderson announces that this won't be an ordinary movie. And it's clear through the first act and most of the second that his intention, in part, is to bust up all audience expectations about character, story, plot, and especially pace. Unlike Boogie Nights (but like his first movie, Hard Eight), this is a taut, tense, anxious film. And possibly because of its length (195 minutes), it's almost overwhelmingly relentless. There is no let-up as the cop investigates a murder and pursues a relationship, as the quiz kid prepares under his father's overbearing figure for the gameshow, as the self-help promoter lectures his seminar attendees, as the gameshow host juggles multiple secrets to a critical mass, as the dying man dies, as the nurse attends him and tries to help him find his estranged son, and as it begins to rain.
     These characters are driven to do what real people do, and in the best Shakespearean tradition, they are as self-aware as their drugged or un-medicated states allow, self-aware as when the nurse pleads with a person to stay on the phone line and help by imploring him with this logic: "This is like the part of the movie when someone asks for your help, and you help."
     So why, with these excellently drawn characters and finely interwoven tales, do I suggest there is a weakness to the writing, and dub the movie Nashville-lite?
     For that, an exploration of the theme and a comparison of the films are necessary.
     In Nashville, Altman took his approach of ensemble casts with interwoven stories (previously used in M*A*S*H and Brewster McCloud) to new heights. Nashville is the story of many people (aspiring, struggling and famous musicians, business boosters, journalists, a presidential campaign organizer, a groupie, a man whose wife is dying, a mother of deaf children, a magician, a fan, an assassin, and many more), all interconnecting, colliding, relating, as a soundtruck travels through the streets periodically but incessantly promoting the candidacy of a presidential candidate. Set in the period just after Watergate (ancient history to those under thirty), the film is not just about Nashville, it's about America and a wave of disillusionment and cynicism that blanketed the populace and the legacy with which we still live. (There is, after all, an extreme, profound difference between Reagan's hollow boostersim and the soulful idealism of the pre-Watergate decade.)
     Starring Gibson, Michael Murphy (who plays Moore's lawyer in Magnolia), Jeff Goldblum, Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Chaplin, Keenan Wynn, Scott Glenn, David Arkin, Karen Black, Elliot Gould, Julie Christie, Keith Carradine, Ned Beatty, Shelly Duvall and many more, Nashville was, in its time, an anti-movie movie, disrupting numerous storytelling conventions.
     The significant difference between Nashville and Magnolia is the difference in the mettle of the writers. Altman set out in Nashville to portray a disrupted, dysfunctional society where shattering things happen and have the potential to shatter us, and where some people aspired to be dulled and tested their dullness by tempting pain and disaster. He set out to portray cynical people in a time of disillusionment. And, key here: he didn't pull any punches. He did not chicken out in his third act. Some relationships formed die. Some expectations are dashed. Some plans are made moot. Some truths are too powerful to ignore or dismiss or rationalize or spin. Some things just don't work out. And the assassin does what assassins do.
     In Magnolia, Anderson pulls the rug from under himself in his third act. The hardcore Cruise suddenly melts in the worst of all Hollywood clichés after the nurse does succeed in his assignment. Moore's failed suicide leads to a saccharin reunion with Cruise. The cop lets a bad guy get away-- okay, the guy isn't really a bad, bad guy, but is it really in character for the cop to let him go, or is he following the sudden Anderson/Cruise/plot-overrides-character-third-act-motif that allows him to suddenly behave differently?
     But worst of all is the frogs.
     Throughout the movie there are various references to Exodus 8:2, so for those who know their Bible, this shouldn't have been a surprise.
     In the third act, under the theme of "strange things happen", frogs fall from the sky. Like the Biblical plague. They rain down on the Valley. Only, that's a story from the Bible. It's a startling, wonderfully visual moment, but it really doesn't work in this otherwise realistic film. It really doesn't work like the three stories at the beginning of the film (robbers, scuba diver, murder/suicide) that announce the theme of the film.
     Anderson, in his third act, tries to have it too many ways. His anti-movie movie instincts tell him that suddenly having frogs fall from the sky is okay, it's cool, it's part of, hey, things happen, even if it collides irreconcilably with all the hard work he's put in to making everything so realistic-- big deal, he seems to say, those are your expectations, pal, not mine. But alongside that, undermining that, are his choices for cliché and saccharin resolutions to complex conflicts.
     It's just disappointing, is all. Especially when, as Nashville shows, you can take a realistic complex story with multiple characters, be taut and cynical and hard-boiled and edgy, and have your stunning moment be based in reality: assassinations happen. Frogs falling from the sky--? Too Wes Craven. Too Roger Corman. Too sophomore year in college.
     But Magnolia is an engaging film by a promising writer-director, and worth seeing, despite the third act cop-out. Perhaps, in the future, Anderson will not blink.