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Laramie Movie Scope:

An emotional powerhouse built on improbable connections

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 30, 2000 -- "Magnolia" is the most emotionally powerful film I have seen in a long time. In a way, it reminds me of the harrowing battle scenes in "Saving Private Ryan," only these are emotional battles.

At first, the film seems scatter shot in its approach, introducing all kinds of seemingly unrelated characters. Then director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") starts cranking up the emotional power, using music, editing and camera work to draw the audience in to the stories. He runs the stories in parallel and builds them all to a climax at a single time. At the same time, he shows us the common theme in all these separate stories.

At the center of the film is the Partridge family, no, not the one from the old TV show, but it's pretty obvious the choice of names in this movie is no accident. There's also a self-important Thurston Howell, played by Henry Gibson. Gibson, as you may recall starred in Robert Altman's film "Nashville." "Magnolia" has a very Altman-like feel to it, especially in the way it skewers the corruption behind the power in Hollywood. Anyway, the big star of this film is Tom Cruise, and he's playing a member of the Partridge family, living, like the rest of the characters, in the San Fernando Valley.

The wealthy head of the Partridge family, Earl, played by Jason Robards, lays dying. Since Robards recently recovered from a life-threatening illness, he knows just how to play this part, and he plays it to the hilt. Earl's Hospice nurse, Phil Parma, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Boogie Nights"), tries to grant the old man's dying wish by arranging for his estranged son to visit him. The son, played by Tom Cruise, is hard to convince.

Cruise plays con man Frank T. J. Mackey. He runs a Tony Robbins-like operation in which he convinces men to pay him to teach them how to seduce women. Among the lessons he teaches is "how to pretend to be a nice and caring guy." Mackey is hilarious as he struts all over the stage, saying things like "respect the cock." He has pushed his past out of his mind, but he finds out, and this is a central theme of the movie, "You may be finished with your past, but your past isn't finished with you."

Earl's wife, Linda is played by Julianne Moore, who also appeared in "Boogie Nights, along with Boogie holdovers William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Ricky Jay and others. Linda is wracked with guilt because she cheated on her dying husband. Her husband is wracked with guilt for having first cheated, and then left his dying first wife.

Jimmy Gator (played by Philip Baker Hall), who is also dying, is wracked with guilt for having cheated on his wife (Melinda Dillon), and for maybe having had sex with his own daughter (played by Melora Walters). He says he can't remember if he did or not. Their daughter is totally addicted to cocaine, but she falls in love with a cop (played by John C. Reilly), a guy who really wants to help people. Their seemingly hopeless relationship is very touching. Both Reilly and Walters have a kind of innocence and tenderness that defies logic.

Yet another part of the movie concerns one of the panelists on the game show hosted by Gator, Stanley Spector (played by newcomer Jeremy Blackman, who is, in fact, a very bright kid), a child genius being pushed to perform with robot-like precision by his father. A parallel character is Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) a former whiz kid himself, whose life has become a disaster.

The way this movie is set up this vast array of characters are all main characters. If it was a perfect film, all these stories would have panned out, but unfortunately, the story with the genius kid doesn't pan out, and the character of Linda (Julianne Moore) is just plain annoying. She shrieks at everyone and her remorse doesn't ring true. Most of these stories do work, and that has to set some kind of record. Most movies can manage only one or two standout characters, this one has at least half a dozen, and they are all solid. The film also has a powerful soundtrack, with great songs by Aimee Mann, and fine music by Fiona Apple and Jon Brion.

Now you may have heard this film has a very strange ending, indeed it does. The prologue to the film is also odd. At the end, Magnolia Boulevard receives a real wrath of God type of visitation. I don't know if it was cinematically necessary, but it did have the advantage of not having been tried before. It bothered some critics immensely. It did not bother me at all. I don't think it makes it a better movie, but I don't think it hurts it that much either. To me, what is important is the story of the people I had come to care about by that time.

The film explores some powerful themes: The power of love and the power of family, and how people can fritter those precious things away. It tells of broken hearts and bitterness, and how broken hearts can be mended with the power of love. It tells how people use other people ruthlessly and how that hurts them. It's like "Short Cuts," but without all that bitterness and cynicism. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2000 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]