Robert Altman's most famous movies – especially Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993) – have been extraordinarily influential upon several generations of filmmakers worldwide. Nowadays, it is the highest mark of artistic ambition to devise a loose plot in which a large number of characters who inhabit the same locale live out stories which seem separate but are somehow, ultimately, interconnected.
Such a narrative concept can so easily tip over into pretentiousness. Such films are rarely modest – on the contrary, they come in swinging as testaments to a nation, a generation, a zeitgeist. At least when Altman cranks up this ambition, he is palpably responding to crises in the real world. When Paul Thomas Anderson has a shot, he merely recycles other, better movies.
Anderson's latest, Magnolia, is a sprawling, repetitive, lacklustre affair. Once the script framework is locked down – nine characters passing through a single day and night in the San Fernando Valley – Anderson can do nothing but relentlessly trudge through the bleak stations of American misery.
Like Altman, Anderson is something of a sadist. His plots exist purely to get us to the spectacular moment when his characters (and the social strata they represent) crack apart, usually in the most public and humiliating way imaginable.
A kids' quiz show host, Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall) collapses on air. This show's ace contestant, young Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), wets himself and falls silent as all eyes turn to him. Linda (Julianne Moore), trophy wife of the dying, older Earl (Jason Robards), rages around a pharmacy having a nervous breakdown. Donnie (William H. Macy), ex-quiz show star, gets drunk in a bar and contemplates robbing the place in which he works.
On and on the film grinds, for over three hours. Anderson likes two kinds of camera movements – the slow glide around a scene and the fast zip into someone either leaping out of a chair, picking up a phone or snorting a line of coke – which he repeats ad nauseam. Meanwhile, as in the vastly overrated Boogie Nights (1998), pop ditties drone away on the soundtrack, providing either heavy-handed pointers or facile ironies.
Anderson's artistic reach far exceeds his grasp. Magnolia is awash with incidents, characters and ideas. Unfortunately, no two of these ideas join in any coherent way. Chance, coincidence, redemption, the American Dream, gender politics, media, celebrity, secrecy, family: a bottomless showbag of banal, tabloid headlines. The eventual divine intervention of a little magic realism certainly raises the temperature of the movie, but empties it even further of a satisfying meaning.
Anderson's modish nod to contemporary excavations of masculinity – misogyny, repressed gayness, familial abuse, fathers and sons – has a contrived, mechanical, heartless feel. Tom Cruise's contribution as Frank, a brutish Men's Movement guru, gives the film its best and most outrageous moments of humour. But, like most of Magnolia, it registers as mere shadow boxing – scoring easy points by knocking down stereotypes and caricatures towards which we can all feel smugly superior.
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© Adrian Martin March 2000