Cover of Magnolia [Blu-ray]
NOTE: This contains Spoilers for Magnolia! Do not continue further if you haven’t seen it and plan to!
I personally list Magnolia as one of the all time biggest pieces of deplorable cinema it’s been my displeasure to witness. I could go on for ages on every little thing that’s wrong with it, but most of it seems to basically come down to the point of that P. T. Anderson put more emphasis on Style than Storytelling. And most of it was so masturbatory, it wasn’t even that enjoyable to watch. Not to mention that it’s 3 hours and fifteen minutes long. But, well, I’ve been known to be very opinionated about film.
Some might say that storytelling isn?t the sole purpose of film, and I?d actually agree with them. After all, Buñuel’s one of my favorite directors, but the main difference is intent — Buñuel’s films (speaking here more of his earlier Surrealist classics like Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or) had a different intent. In those, it was an concerned effort to not tell a story, or have any symbolism whatsoever (in fact, in the treatments for Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or, he and Dali threw out anything that could be seen as a symbol/plot — of course this doesn’t stop people, including myself, attempting to read meanings into it!). Magnolia, on the other hand, was intended to tell a story. As such, I think it can be held to the standards of “Did it tell this story well? Yes? Then it ultimately succeeded in at least one of its primary goals. No? Then it ultimately failed in same.”
And I hesitate to call Buñuel masturbatory; at least not in the same reason I feel P. T. Anderson is. There’s two main scenes in Magnolia [AGAIN: SPOILERS ARE COMING, SO STOP READING IF YOU CARE ABOUT THOSE THINGS] that really solidified that for me. The first which is a relatively minor thing; when I saw it, since it comes relatively early in the film, I winced, but combined with the thing I’m going to talk about next, it really annoyed me. There’s a bit where he Cuts On Form/Action (it’s been a while, so I might be wrong on the exactness, but I hope you’ll know the cut I mean). The game show host brings his arm down, and then it cuts to an airport, with a man completing the motion. Which is a pretty neat effect, but the thing that bugged me about it was that the Airport Man then just walks off and the next scene begins. It had no reason to be there, other than it looked cool (which it does, I admit). The only purpose of it was to go “Look at this! Isn’t this cool?! Wow!” rather than to advance anything or setup the scene. For example, since the motion was similar to that arm-pumping thing some people will do when something goes their way, if the next scene had been in a bowling alley, and it was clear that Motion-Completing Man had just got a strike and was pleased. If that were the case, I’d be totally happy with the scene. Even though Motion-Completing Man wasn’t a character, and didn’t have any point in the scene, his action sets up the setting. It completes the feel that we are, indeed, in a bowling alley. When the same motion’s in an airport, though, it doesn’t make sense. I’ve never seen anyone just standing in the middle of an airport, make an arm-pumping motion, and then walk off. The context doesn’t jive with the action.
Like I said, though, this merely made me wince. The scene that turned me against P. T. Anderson and the film (up until this point, I wasn’t terribly fond of it, but I wasn’t terribly annoyed with it either — I still had hope that I’d walk away going “wow, that deserved all the acclaim!”) was when Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s character (an actor I often enjoy) was on the phone to Tom Cruise’s character’s people, and goes on the “This is the part of the movie where you help me” monologue. That was just so unbearably Wink-Wink “Ha-ha! Look how postmodern I am! See, the characters know it’s a movie, even though they’re not necessarily directly breaking the fourth wall, they know it’s there!” that it just made me decide that I really hated this movie. I’ve seen Fourth Wall breaking so often that it really has to be done well to impress me, but P. T. Anderson did it so clumsily and smirkingly. It just really seemed like it was put there so everyone would look, point and go “Oh, what a clever boy he is! What a wonderful writer-director!”.
The one scene where everyone sings the same song is sort of related to that — it struck me as Anderson saying “Oh, this is the point in the movie where I put in something that doesn’t actually take place in the narrative but shows how all these people are together and are linked and whatnot! I’m a clever boy! Clever, clever, clever!” I must admit I liked the song, though. I haven’t heard a lot of Aimee Mann, but what I have heard I find quite enjoyable.
It may sound that I’m against cleverness in films, and I’m not; I love things that are clever. My complaint with Magnolia is that he seemed so intent on saying how clever he was rather than just actually being clever. A lot of the decisions on the film seemed designed to make the audience praise him, rather than just being in the film where if you catch them, cool, but if you miss them, that’s all right, too, maybe on the second viewing.
As for the storytelling itself, I just thought it was poor. None of the characters were very likable, but none of them were interesting either. For example, I love Todd Solondz’ work, and I don’t think Solondz has ever created a Truly Likeable Character; but they’re all deeply interesting, even sympathetic — you’d never, ever, ever want to meet them. And it’s obvious that while they’re unlikable, Solondz doesn’t hate his characters, either — he just presents them. In Magnolia, though, everyone was so shrill and irritating, I just stopped caring about them. I mean, I despised the Game Show Host’s Daughter (On a related note: I thought the whole Admission Of Possible Molestation scene was handled really badly. I know the Game Show Host was pretty much dead to the world and what not, but that scene and its implications just struck me as wholly out of character. Perhaps that was the point, but it didn?t gel at all for me.), and the Cop was pretty annoying. Tom Cruise’s character was an asshole; he was supposed to be an asshole and I understand that, he just wasn’t an INTERESTING asshole. There wasn’t anything really to his story that was compelling. The performing-seminar part of his character didn’t speak to me in the slightest nor did the part where he breaks down and we’re dealing with The Real Him(tm), and fighting with his father and all that. It seemed so predictable. The only bits I found even remotely interesting were the parts with William H. Macy’s character, and the younger Quiz Kid (which I suppose stands to reason, since the two roles were related). They just weren’t enough for me to care about the movie as a whole, let alone for the 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Which is another thing that I find troubling today — I don?t necessarily mind long films, I can think of many, many films that are both long and wonderful, but it seems that there’s a trend that people seem to think that if they?re making an Important Film, it absolutely must be over 2, 2 and a half hours long. Your film needs as much time as it needs to tell the story, but often there’s a lot of extraneous things that could easily be trimmed out of a lot of these Epic Type Movies. Filmmakers need to know that just because a film’s only 90 minutes doesn’t mean that it can’t hold Truth and Beauty. Not to say that all shorter films are great, either. For every Excellent Epic, I could think of at least five shorter ones that made Magnolia look like Citizen Kane.
I’m not going to talk about the frogs, because pretty much every review does. As far as I can tell, it’s one of those things where if you think Magnolia‘s great, you’ll think the frogs are a piece of brilliant symbolism, and if you think it’s horrible, you’ll think it’s a piece of calculated posturing. And I kind of think that in all the things written about Magnolia, not much more needs to be said about the frogs. Also on the topic of the ending, while I liked the idea of tying everything together, I did think that having Jason Robards’ character produce the game show at the very end was really, really cheap.
When writing this, I tried my best (and I fear I failed) to not play the game of “Well, X did it first! Therefore P. T. Anderson was ripping this off, which is why I hate his movie!” That’s a sucker’s game: ideas aren’t like Kleenex; just because someone’s used them already doesn’t mean they’re spent. So, yeah, it’s a weak argument to take. When I did come dangerously close to playing that game, my intent wasn’t so much “X did it first, therefore it’s a rip-off”, but “X did it first, but P. T. Anderson didn’t do it nearly as well.” I mean, if I was going to do that, I?d bring up that Magnolia seems to be, uh, inspired by the works of David Foster Wallace through an embaddening filter. But I?m not going to.
Ultimately, Magnolia failed on both levels, style and substance, for me. Did I think it had a good style? No. Did I think it had a good story? Absolutely not. Anyway, it?s not P. T. Anderson?s fault he made a bad movie. After all, Wes Anderson took up all the “awesome” allocated for modern directors named “Anderson”, so it?s not like he had any choice in the matter.