WHAT I LIKED: In its incredible, unexpected and tragic manipulation of plot and theme, Paul Thomas Anderson's second feature 'Magnolia,' is, wholeheartedly and undoubdtedly, an utter masterpiece of a film.
It opens with a narrator explaining three random, suspcious deaths in history that arose by strange coincidence. Then, in one extra-long cross-cutting montage sequence, we're introduced to seven seemingly unconnected characters and situations. We see a giddy but lonely LA cop preparing for a shift (John C. Reilly), a man rushing his nerdy son Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) off to school, an old celebrity called Earl (Jason Robards) dying with cancer with his nurse by his side (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a kids TV host Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall), a young drug addict having sex (Melora Walters), a misogynist preacher called Frank (Tom Cruise), and a sad ex-contestant watching Jimmy's show called Donnie (William H. Macy).
That's fascinating because, especially with the ambiguous intro, we know these events are inevitably going to link somehow. But because Anderson takes his time and lets his camera do the talking, there's intense excitement and anticipation to be had in waiting for the links to be revealed. We gradually learn for example that Stanley is being pressured by his father to earn money on Jimmy's show, and that Jimmy himself is dying of cancer. We see the cop involved with the addict who in turn is revealed to be Jimmy's estranged daughter, whilst Frank is subsequently revealed to be an estranged son of Earl.
As I said, there's a surface-level thrill to that continuous unravelling and entwining, but it's what the reveals mean for the characters that elevates it into something profound. We understand for example why Donnie is so desperate because we see his childhood played out through Stanley and his bullish father; expecting him to be helpful and masculine and take everything into his own hands in much the same way the struggling cop feels he has to, and then, when we learn that Jimmy molested his daughter, we understand why she's so damaged too. We also learn than Frank is only desparately searching for power and preaching havoc because Earl cheated on and left his dying mother, and in turn, Earl is left lonely and regretful on his death-bed by this. That victim and preparator thing is a the case for virtually all of the characters - the awful actions of their fathers are leading them to commit wrongs themselves, and in turn, their fathers have to live with the regret.
That makes it a film most of all about the wrongful actions of men having far-reaching, long-running cyclical consequences, and that's a fascinating thematic journey to have revealed. But it's the way it's revealed that makes it so impactful, as Anderson and his editor Dylan Tichenor masterfully cross-cut between the different situations where the things happening in each informs the themes of everything else until situations are literally being panned between to show the obvious parallels. All of that is equally only so effective though because the performances are so convincing, as each cast member plays their role with genuine nuance and humanity to show the effects of their childhood deeply within (Tom Cruise in particular gives the performance of a lifetime in suppressing then inevitably releasing the pent-up hurt of his father's actions) or the regret they face as a result of their choices as a father.
But the narrative doesn't just end by making those points, as when the frogs come falling (literally), the script offers a brief opportunity - not to surrender to some divine intervention, but to break the cycle and reverse those wrongs. After all, as the narrator says, "we may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us," and that - along with the ammends the characters make - brilliantly translates a message about accepting and addressing those consequences by balancing both justice and forgiveness, and moving forward by embracing the past.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Sure, that final thematic conclusion is a little glib compared to the slowly revealing nature of the rest of the story.
But the main complaint for me is that the number of story threads and characters does make it a little hard to empathise particularly deeply with any individual, especially when they're all clearly being written to serve the themes first despite their insightful and humanistic performances.
VERDICT: A slowly-unravelling story of mutliple characters that eventually reveals a common thread about having to live with the consequences of your own and your fathers' actions, 'Magnolia,' is brilliantly engaging and thematically fascinating.