Two on One: Bitter Magnolia

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Two on One    

Bitter Magnolia

by Karen Moline and Ray Pride

The Setup: Paul Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights is the grandiloquently gaga Magnolia, a tapestry of achingly lonely lives overlapping on a single rainy day in California’s usually so-sunny San Fernando Valley. It stars quiz show host Eddie Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who is dying and hoping to reconcile with estranged, coked-up daughter Claudia Gator (Melora Walters), and rich man Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), also dying, also hoping to make amends, in his case with an angry son, T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who leads seminars on how to “respect the cock and tame the cunt.” Parallel plot lines involve quiz kids past and present, a grieving wife (Julianne Moore), a would-be suitor (John C. Reilly) and a comparatively selfless nurse (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). How these lives intersect is as sprawling as all the freeways in L.A., and in Magnolia, no one is ever going to get a free ride.

RAY: Magnolia is a deluge of big gestures and big emotions. I wanted to love the ride, but the pace is punishing at times. I felt like I’d been thrown in a car with someone careening down a dark Angeleno highway, compulsively switching radio stations, blaring the music at full-blast.

KAREN: Right — and the driver’s also speeding through fog, which doesn’t stop him from leaning over to fiddle with the cigarette lighter, while petting the dog and yakking on the cell phone. All the while, he’s pretty much ignoring the person trapped in the front seat with him.

RAY: The sprawling story lines may overwhelm, but they’re key to Anderson’s movie: the film is about the unexpected ways in which we’re all connected, and also about the expected ways — like family ties — that are too often treated carelessly. As with his earlier film, Boogie Nights, love is less about romance and desire and happy-ever-after-ness than the guilty feelings you feel for not being as good as you’d like to be for that person. At times, an audience can get lost in all the details, and the characters are certainly lost to each other, painfully isolated. While they can’t speak to each other, we’re given access to their deepest sorrows, their most self-defeating feelings of love. Every character in this movie has a level of pain that starts at hysteria and works its way faster, louder from there.

KAREN: Of all the cast, though, it’s Cruise who bats the hardest.

RAY: There’s obscenity coming out of his mouth that’s as profane and exuberant as anything he’s ever spoken on screen.

KAREN: I love the way he wraps his lips around “cocksucker.” Playing a sex evangelist so twisted by the thrill of the chase that he can’t see women as anything but objects to plunder, he’s just raring at the chance to be rotten. Like every other man in the film, he’s working out or working from a level of pain that makes him childlike in the worst possible way. Anderson’s male characters never grow up, which renders them oddly sexless (even Cruise, for all his gotta-get-some rhetoric). They live in fantasies: at age 45, they think they can be loved if only they had straight teeth, so they get braces; or as dying men, they suddenly want reconciliation with the children whose lives they’ve already ruined, wreaking only more havoc the harder they try. Cruise, one of the infantalized men, is nothing but a used-vengeance salesman, making it his life mission to peddle a warped version of The Rules for men.

RAY: It’s a fiery counterpoint to the sleepwalking performance he was directed to give in the chilly Eyes Wide Shut.

KAREN: And unlike that movie, this one actually calls on Cruise’s range. When a female TV journalist catches him in a lie, the seducer’s mask drops. He becomes instantly, astonishingly ugly in his desperation, where only minutes before he’d been sensually abuzz, cock of the walk. The irony is that he can be “sexual” only when pumping his audiences full of adrenaline-drenched promises of predatory success.

RAY: Anderson is a magician with actors: he’s always trying to dazzle them — and us — with ways to show pain in ever more soul-twisting ways. Julianne Moore, nothing short of a sensual saint in The End of the Affair, pulls off a scene where four eloquent words — “Shut the fuck up!” — spew out of her mouth in more than a dozen different intonations, turning it into a summary of every kind of disappointment in her life.

KAREN: And there are many of them. Sex, in particular, is a bad memory for all the characters. Which is one of my problems with Anderson. For all his posturing, what he writes is curiously unsexy. I think he’s afraid or incapable of showing normal lovemaking on the screen; he certainly couldn’t in Boogie Nights. There’s little eroticism and certainly no joy in Magnolia — only the heart’s capacity for great sorrow.

RAY: There is that pitiable scene during the opening credits when Walters’
Claudia is lonely enough to pick up a loser straight out of one of T.J.’s seminars in a bar for some particularly joyless, cocaine-fueled sex.

KAREN: By starting the film with such a bleak scenario, Anderson sets us up for what the film delivers throughout: people grieving because of the awful, mundane randomness that constitutes so many of their emotional encounters.

RAY: Anderson’s approach to telling a story is like dynamiting a pond for fish. But the end result is still a feast, you have to admit.

KAREN: Sure, but after three hours and eight minutes, I was suffering from sore-buttitis. At one point the whiz-quiz-kid has to go to the bathroom, and as soon as he proclaimed his need, so did I.

RAY: I actually thought that scene was one of the more interesting moments in the movie. No one will listen to the cute little smart boy, so he has to piss his pants on live television to demonstrate his need. I see a bit of wunderkind Anderson in that kid — he’s clearly found that intelligence, showing off and even being a brat can sometimes cut through all the clutter.

KAREN: But I think Anderson’s immaturity makes for a movie that’s two-dimensional, for all the multitudes crowding the picture. Anderson can only communicate emotional breakthroughs with suffering, humiliation and loss. What Magnolia lacks is one story line that shows a couple ensconsed in boring, everyday contentment. That would make all the rest of the pain relatively more bearable.

RAY: But he set out to make a movie about anguish. The rain that runs through the movie could be a biblical deluge, or the tears of a beneficent god. However you read the rain-streaked, tear-streaked canvas, I think the movie’s recipe for redemption, depending on your take, is greeting card–simple or as elegant as a poem: we must love one another or die.

KAREN: And then there’s a third option: to die trying.

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©2000 Karen Moline,