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Customer Review

on September 17, 2000
Magnolia is one of those films where less would have been more. In attempting to do so much, the film actually suffered from excessive brilliance. Paul Thomas Anderson gives us a powerful auteur piece that succeeds on most levels, but comes up short of its true potential.
The story follows one day in the lives of nine major characters and a host of minor ones whose lives are loosely connected to one man by various threads. Anderson does inspired work, giving us deep character development for each of the nine. Many themes run through the work, but the most pervasive is that of guilt and remorse. Moreover, almost every effort at atonement was rejected or thwarted in some way, evoking great pathos and a sense of despondent fatalism. This is clearly some of the best and most thought provoking dark writing ever done.
From a directorial standpoint, the film was a magnificent display of directorial virtuosity. Anderson handled scenes, actors and visual details with the flair of a maestro. The swirl of scenes from character to character, the use of the camera and music, the juxtaposition of scenes, everything was superbly done. Yet, the whole was less than the sum of the parts due to Anderson's inability to let go of elements that encumbered the film (an irony since one of the main themes of the story was about being able to let go).
Michaelangelo once commented that inside every block of marble, there is a masterpiece, and the sculptor needs only cut away the right pieces. Editing is one of most excruciating tasks of an auteur since each excision discards part of his soul. However, stoical editing is the area that differentiates great writer/directors from the good ones.
This film had everything necessary to be one of the truly great films of our times, but it suffered from excess. There were too many characters. The story would have lost almost nothing by eliminating Donnie (William Macy), Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and Claudia (Melora Walters). These characters really didn't add that much to the philosophical points being made in the film and made the film unwieldy. This would have trimmed forty-five minutes to an hour from the film and turned the focus more on the relationship between Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and his son Frank (Tom Cruise) that was the very best element of the film.
Also, Anderson went overboard on the profanity. I am no prude in this regard. I believe that profanity adds realism to a film because people are frequently profane in real life. I disdain the self-righteous prigs who are offended by it. However, overuse of any device to the extent that it starts to burden the story ultimately detracts from it. Anderson crossed that line. It seemed like he was trying to set a record for frequency and volume of vulgar expletives. If all the profanity were edited out, the film would have been 30 minutes shorter and Julianne Moore would have had about five lines.
Finally, the plague of the frogs taken from Chapter 8 of Exodus was ill advised, as was the chorus of song by all the major characters at their point of greatest despondency. Anderson was trying to make important points with both of these devices, but in the process, they trivialized an exceptionally powerful drama to the point of eye rolling incredulity.
Anderson was so uncompromising about every detail of his artistic vision that he missed the Big Picture (pun intended). The final version that was released would have been better released later as the director's cut. If Anderson had edited the theatrical release effectively, he could have had it both ways. He could have had a commercial success, critical acclaim, and he still could have given people an opportunity to see his entire vision.
As to the acting, this is probably the best ensemble performance I have ever seen. Tom Cruise was nominated for a best supporting Oscar and much as I love Michael Caine and his performance in "The Cider House Rules", this was no contest. Cruise was electrifying. This was one of his best performances ever. I also thought Jason Robards' performance was worthy of supporting actor nomination. He was tremendous as the dying patriarch. The rest of the cast was phenomenal without exception.
It is easy to understand why this film failed at the box office (at $23M, it grossed $14M less than its $37M budget). It was far too abstruse, intense, dark, philosophical and wry (not to mention lengthy) to have popular appeal. Of those who actually saw it, most either loved it or hated it. I must admit to feeling both emotions. I loved its genius but I hated that its final form didn't do that genius justice. Thus, I rated it an 8/10. It will undoubtedly become a cult classic rather than the true classic it could have been.
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