Friday, July 30, 2010

Everybody Hurts (and hurts, and hurts...)

Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's third feature, certainly doesn't lack for ambition. Fresh from the critical and commercial success of Boogie Nights (see my last post), the director set out to "make the epic, the all-time great San Fernando Valley movie." Nights, a decades-spanning ensemble piece, had certainly represented a massive leap outward from the genre-bound Hard Eight. Magnolia, however, progresses just as far beyond Nights, from passive description to two-fisted engagement. So where to begin discussing "an epic spin on topics that don't necessarily get the epic treatment"?

The beginning is revealing. Magnolia comes with a prologue, in which an uncredited Ricky Jay describes the existential coincidences he says will dominate the film. As per PTA, the sequence is astonishingly well composed, complete with jarring sound and sharp, effective editing. It's also clinically detached, annoyingly smug, and far too enamored with its own conceits. Evidently, we couldn't possibly understand the ideas PTA is weaving together on our own, so we need him to draw a fucking ESPN arrow on the screen for us. These strengths and weaknesses are immediately apparent, but upon returning to the opening after a full viewing, something else becomes far more worrisome.

The introduction's wrong. That's not what the movie's about, not at all. Coincidences occur in Magnolia, sure, but they're background, starting points, irrelevant in themselves. Really, do we need to be convinced that convenient coincidences occur in cinema? Is this news to anyone, that we need to be eased in and reassured? Yes, frogs fall from the sky. But within the film, that Biblical downpour is received as a catalyst for the film's battered relationship arcs, not a hard-to-swallow miracle per se. Do we need to be warned, when the experience reveals all we're supposed to know? The point is that it's inexplicable; starting things off with a precise treatise on imprecise actions seems overeager and oddly counter-intuitive.

Coincidence, no matter how well-woven, carries little emotional weight, and Magnolia is all about hitting us with the heavy shit. The film's actual arena therein is communication, the lack of and the need for. Tom Cruise's absurdly misogynistic evangelism is mocked, but it's never truly condemned. If nothing else, he's encouraging his flock of macho shitheads to come clean and admit their own failures and frustrated desires. In that regard, they're well ahead of Philip Baker Hall's disintegrating game show host, who keeps his mouth clamped shut to prevent any of his horrendous secrets from spilling out. John C. Reilly's impossibly lonely cop is little better off: he describes his life philosophy to his empty passenger seat, and impatiently dismisses a young rapper who claims to have revealed a murderer's name in verse (crucially, the matter is never resolved). Cruise himself finally reaches redemption by spilling his guts at his father's deathbed in a powerfully feral scene, earning the Best Supporting Actor nod.

The closer the film hews to this theme, the stronger it is. It's a fierce, fearless polemic, light years ahead of the forced surface diagnosis in American Beauty that same year. Magnolia's occasional over-talkiness can be forgiven in light of its admirable faith in healing through honesty. Keep talking, guys, just keep talking.

The farther the film strays, as with that prologue, the more I become convinced that for all his technical skill, PTA isn't in full control of his moving parts here. In my last post, I argued that many of Boogie Nights' myriad characters and subplots felt sketched out, betraying the director's struggle to manage large ensembles. The same is true in Magnolia, perhaps best understood actor-by-actor.

William H. Macy ("Quiz Kid Donnie Smith!") is physically impressive, bringing the same flop-sweat sheen he made so memorable in Fargo, but is handed some truly wince-inducing lines: the one about love to give, the one about children and angels. These moments are not only clumsy, but also telegraphed. PTA commits the same grave error (though less reprehensibly) that Paul Haggis turned into an aesthetic in Magnolia descendant Crash: he treats a character like a mouthpiece. Philip Baker Hall's breakdown is extremely affective, and he mutters a despondent "Fuck" like nobody's business, but he's poorly paced. By the time we finally reach his abuse of his daughter (Melora Walters), his character's been so strung out that the final revelation can only ride the exhaust fumes, devoid of potency and punch.

Far worse is the fate of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays a saintly nurse, no complications, no history, no humanity, a plot device through and through. He's forced to earnestly proclaim some winking bilge about how the film's convoluted character circles are, in fact, just like a movie, but we should still believe them! It's a failure on par with the prologue: unbelievably condescending, and even more unbelievably unnecessary.

And then there are the characters who aren't men above 25. Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, and Jeremy Blackman, put through hell just for the sheer painful kick of it. Moore is dragged from one histronic scene to the next, ostensibly on some massive guilt trip, but is mostly just employed to be a Hysterical Woman, Guys, and yell "I sucked so many cocks" really loudly. Walters is handed a more sympathetic backstory from the Trauma Hat, but we aren't given access to it until near film's end. As such, she largely comes off one-dimensional and, again, telegraphed. Finally, Blackman is subject to the film's most head-slapping contradiction between polemic and execution. As a manipulated boy genius, Blackman has little to do but be a locus of pain and shame. When he finally protests against being treated like a "doll" (in a ridiculously stunted monologue), he could be scorning Paul Thomas Anderson as much as Philip Baker Hall, but the movie seems distressingly unaware of this hypocrisy. At its worst, Magnolia dips below Boogie Nights' shallowness to plumb depths of misogyny, tastelessness, and laziness. I'm not accusing PTA of conscious prejudice, but Magnolia is evidence that balanced, democratic ensemble work is beyond his considerable abilities, and it's unfortunate that he fell back on such easy stereotypes to fill out this cheesecake.

It's not terribly surprising that Magnolia breaks down when scrutinized at the micro level. Every thematic hammerweight begs the audience to consider the film in macro terms, where PTA's persistent craft can still shine. And shine it does: no matter how thematically dubious, Magnolia exemplifies its maker's mastery of film mechanics. Time is PTA's tool and trick. Magnolia is built from the ground up, through carefully arranged montages that stretch awkward moments over days and cover weeks of hopelessness in brief, breathtaking moments. PTA pulls at emotional threads, creating ebbs and swells and dry pools of feeling seemingly at will, while still allowing his fuckups to make their own fuckups (an autonomy largely absent from Boogie Nights). It's a perfectly composed ensemble film, the careening interactions acquiring a breathless poetry, marred only by Hoffman's aforementioned insistence that he can perceive the web. Magnolia's power, after all, is showing the audience the connections no one character can see, in grand cinematic tradition.

It's this interdependency that separates the film from its predecessor; while Boogie Nights is studded with superb set pieces, Magnolia's threads are inextricably interwoven. Its centerpiece, the "Wise Up" singalong, is the strongest example. The deeply affecting sequence is at once summary, breather, and catalyst, employing the lightest of touches to access pure moments of feeling. Magnolia excels at exhaling pure feeling, though the roots shrivel upon examination and the filmmaker's hand lurches between cluelessness and fascistic control. Ultimately, it's more a distantly admirable film than a great one, a concept-heavy and substance-light work caught between an acting showcase and an auteurist project, never attaining the best heights of either.

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