You're never done with the past, because the past is never done with you.
As the year draws to an end, a number of people have asked me what I thought the best film of 1999 was. Unfortunately, I cannot provide them an answer as of yet. Part of this is due to the fact that many of the high-profile films of the fourth quarter (such as "Snow Falling on Cedars" or "Cradle Will Rock") that have yet to be seen in wide release, and so I must hold judgement until I have made the 'rounds'. However, another reason would be the staggering amount of choice this year-- 1999 has been a particularly strong year for films, both from the studios and on the independent front. However, despite the overwhelming number of possible contenders, there really hasn't been one particular film that clearly deserves to be named the year's top film-- in looking at a short list that I have compiled, each of the films I've listed suffer from some sort of shortcoming or another, leaving no single 'perfect' choice. Last year, the search ended on Boxing Day after seeing "Shakespeare in Love" with a friend, which I consider to be one of the few 'perfect' films of 1998.
This year, we repeated the same ritual by going to see "Magnolia", writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to his much-lauded "Boogie Nights". Over the past few weeks, much admiration has been voiced over "Magnolia", including two Golden Globe award nominations, and being picked for a number of critic's top ten lists. Entering the theater, I had a feeling that history would repeat itself, and that my search for the year's top film would be over in three hours.
Unfortunately, the search still continues. Though Anderson's unconventional ensemble drama was strong on a number of fronts, which included having one of the most memorable scenes of any film this year, there were still a number of weaknesses in the script that made it a less-than-perfect film. But I'll get into that later.
Named after a street in Los Angeles near where much of the action takes place, "Magnolia" examines the trials and tribulations of its ten main characters over the course of one day, culminating in an atmospheric event of biblical proportions. But before introducing the film's sizable dramatis personae, Anderson first starts off with three anecdotes related to synchronicity: the hanging of three men in 1911, a strange case of suicide/homicide from 1958 (fans of "Homicide: Life on the Street" may recognize it, as an episode was built around it), and a bizarre death during a forest fire in the early Eighties. In addition to providing an interesting tidbit to quickly engage the audience, this opening sequence ties in to one of the film's lynchpins-- in a universe of random possibilities, anything is possible. Which is exactly what the audience will witness over the course of three hours as a number of improbable occurrences are about to ensue on just a regular day in L.A.
The various characters that inhabit the story then take their places, introduced in rapid-fire succession with the help of some smart editing. There's Earl Patridge (Jason Robards of "Enemy of the State"), a television producer on his deathbed, slowly being ravaged by cancer. Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman of "Patch Adams"), his nurse, tries to fulfill Earl's deathbed wish by locating his estranged son. Earl's wife, Linda (Julianne Moore of "Psycho"), is a nervous wreck, unable to deal with the grief and consequences of her husband's impending death. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall of "Rush Hour"), host of the popular quiz show "What Do Kids Know?", is also stricken with cancer, with only two more months to live, and much left unresolved in his life. Claudia (Melora Walters of "Eraser") is his estranged coke-whore daughter, whom he wishes to reconcile with, even though she wants nothing to do with him. She eventually crosses paths with Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly of "For Love of the Game"), a well-meaning, talkative, and lovelorn LAPD cop sent to investigate some shouting reported by Claudia's neighbors. Meanwhile, Stanley Spector (newcomer Jeremy Blackman), a whiz kid on Jimmy's quiz show, is little more than a gravy train in the eyes of his greedy father (Michael Bowen of "Jackie Brown"), eagerly performing for the show's audience like a trained seal. In contrast to Stanley, there's Donnie Smith (William H. Macy of "Happy, Texas"), former quiz show champion from the Sixties, whose brilliance and career prospects have utterly dried up in his old age. Finally, there's Frank (Tom Cruise of "Eyes Wide Shut"), a charismatic motivational speaker who makes money selling books and holding seminars on how men can 'seduce and destroy' women.
The film then jumps from character to character, spending only a few minutes each time, as they each are pushed to the edge of despair by circumstances out of their past, seemingly beyond their control. As each of the main characters come to terms with their own personal demons, a shared affinity is revealed among them, as though their fates are inexorably linked. For all of them, salvation lies in forgiveness, penance, and recognizing that they are part of a greater whole.
Thematically, "Magnolia" is a cross between Krzysztof Kieslowski''s "Three Colors: Red" and John Sayles's "City of Hope". Like "Three Colors: Red", "Magnolia" deals with the metaphysical concepts of fate and destiny, and the intangible connections between us all, even when we believe that we are alone. And like "City of Hope", it also illustrates how we are all a part of a community, and the actions we take have a tangible effect on those around us. Perhaps the most enchanting representation of these ideas comes in the middle of the film, when all the main characters independently begin singing the Aimee Mann song "Wise Up", creating a chorus of shared grief and desperation. I can't recall a more stirring and mystical scene committed to film this year.
Unfortunately, it is in the unconventional structure that the film stumbles. For the first two hours, the story (not to mention dialogue) is snappy, fresh, and a lot of fun. This gracefully leads into the film's first climax, which is a standout moment where it seems that the various story threads are about to converge in a crescendo of emotional and thematic intensity... but then nothing happens, and the film grinds to a dead halt. It was at this point that the film almost loses the audience, which was quite evident in the number of people who decided to walk out of the movie after this point. The pace doesn't pick up again for at least another half-hour, where the story's final and bizarre plot twist is enough to re-energize the lumbering narrative and re-engage the audience.
And despite the three-hour running time, a number of the film's characters and story lines end up falling through the cracks. For example, even though Hoffman does a superb job as Earl's nurse, the audience never gets a good understanding of who this character is or what motivates him. Why is he interested in helping Earl? Why is he moved to tears when the search for Earl's son hits a snag? Unfortunately, we are not privy to what makes Phil Parma tick, which reduces the emotional resonance of his scenes with Earl, particularly in the final act. In a similar manner, Blackman's role as the whiz kid gets shortchanged, as his story arc is put to bed with an unsatisfactory resolution.
But despite the weaknesses in the script, the ensemble of actors that Anderson has assembled is top-notch, with plenty of great performances to go around. Not surprisingly, the performance which is generating the most buzz is that of Tom Cruise, whose character uses his pompous demeanor and misogynistic philosophy to hide his own insecurities. Frankly, it appeared as though Cruise was having too much fun playing his character, as he chewed up scenery with an almost boyish enthusiasm (a nice change of pace from the lethargy he displayed in "Eyes Wide Shut"). High marks would also have to be given to Reilly, whose portrayal of an earnest cop painfully trying to make small talk sprinkles the film with some great moments. Macy, who could probably read the back of cereal boxes and still be engaging, doesn't disappoint as the sad sack looking for love in all the wrong places. Finally, Walters does an impressive turn as a young woman who knows that she is addicted to cocaine, yet feels helpless in dealing with it.
"Magnolia" is far from perfect-- rife with a number of terrific moments, this is a film that could have benefited from a tighter script, which would have made it the best film of the year. But despite its flaws, "Magnolia" still remains an impressive, if not daring, piece of filmmaking that qualifies among the year's top films. So if you're in the mood for something unconventional, maybe with a dash of the metaphysical, then "Magnolia" just might be the intellectual puzzle you need.