Main cast: John C Reilly (Jim Kurring), Tom Cruise (Frank TJ Mackey), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), William H Macy (Donnie Smith), Melora Walters (Claudia Wilson Gator), Jason Robards (Earl Partridge), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector), Felicity Huffman (Cynthia), April Grace (Gwenovier), Ricky Jay (Burt Ramsey), and Alfred Molina (Solomon Solomon)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
From Boogie Nights to a Short Cuts-wannabe – Paul Thomas Anderson is obviously doing his best to move into the 1990s a decade too late. Magnolia retreads the grounds already explored in last year’s so-so Playing by Heart, but at least Playing by Heart is romantic. This one is an emotional wreck of a movie populated with many unlikable characters. Result? Antidepressants recommended.
The story revolves three days in the lives of seemingly unrelated people. Let’s see. Big Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying and wants to see his estranged son Frank (Tom Cruise) one last time before he hits the big one. His trophy wife (Julianne Moore) is devastated because she has grown to love him. Frank is now a hokey guru that runs successful workshops for men, teaching them Neanderthal sexual politics (“always respect your cock”). Then there’s nice bumbly policeman (John C Reilly) who falls for a drugged-up woman (Melora Waters). This woman is the estranged daughter of the host of a successful kiddie-genius quiz game show who is dying of cancer. And in that game show is shy child prodigy Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) who just wants to be left alone. Watching the show is socially dysfunctional former contestant Donnie (William H Macy). Got that?
Since this is practically a montage of short sequences glued into a story, some stories are better than others. Standout scenes are Frank interviewed – grilled, more like it – by a sly interviewer (the way he counters her questions is fun), Donnie and an old man (cameo by Sir Ian McKellen) vying for the attentions of a hunky bartender, and Stanley telling off the adults in the quiz show for not realizing that he is human, not a toy for display. The interview scene is great because Tom Cruise’s cocky charisma comes under fire from a cool, sophisticated interviewer played by April Grace. It is an arduous task, but she slowly pulls down Frank’s well-honed charms and rakish facade until he is left stunned and flabbergasted. Cruise and Grace exudes subtle sexual tension under their mercenary fencing and it is too bad their story never progresses further. Pity.
Donnie is a pitiful character who regains his dignity – at least in my eyes, while Stanley’s life could may as well turn into a barren wasteland like Donnie’s, but the boy finally finds the courage to refuse the pressures placed on him by his peers and father. Stanley’s quiet You will treat me better from now on to his father has me applauding that boy. And cop Jim Kurring (Reilly) is a nice, simple man who is lonely but can’t find the right woman.
Everyone else is simply candidates for some anonymous recovery groups. The two female leads are the worst, especially Claudia the drug addict who can’t say a sentence without lapsing into hysterical shrieks and painful screamings. Julianne Moore’s Linda is more restrained, but her lines are all delivered in near-hysteria, making her painful to watch. Every old people is dying of cancer, everyone’s husband an adulterer, every woman’s a drug addict or liar, and everyone’s miserable.
Between the sappy Playing by Heart and the over-depressive Magnolia, I’ll take the former. This one offers nothing but business opportunities for Prozac, and I don’t even get to see Mark Wahlberg’s dong.