So I re-watched Magnolia this week. And the following several paragraphs of analysis can be summed up in one short sentence: I still don’t “get” the frogs.
But first, some background. I first viewed Magnolia on VHS back in 2000. I had already seen Boogie Nights and enjoyed Paul Thomas Anderson’s directing on that one. I had read the positive reviews Magnolia got, especially for Tom Cruise (who I still liked at the time), and I was fairly excited to see it. Since it was VHS, it came on two tapes. Two intimidating VHS tapes for an indie character drama. Maybe that was the first sign. The second sign? It took me three days to watch the damn thing. I just could not stick with it, even though I liked a lot of the small parts, and most of the acting.
I’ve always had this nagging feeling that I was missing the boat on Magnolia. That the three-day marathon viewing robbed me of seeing a masterpiece for what it really was. A re-viewing was in order. Hell, a second go-round certainly altered my perception of Natural Born Killers (both positively and negatively). Perhaps I’d come out with a different assessment that I did the last time, when the word I remember emerging with was “boring.”
So, five years later, I can say with some certainty that it’s not boring. Well, most of it isn’t boring. It’s three damn hours long so I can’t say it doesn’t drag, but the two hour mark comes a lot quicker than I expect it to, and the multiple storylines give it a rhythm and momentum that carries it a long way. Which is maybe my biggest problem, because at two hours and change, this is a compelling, if enigmatic, flick. At three hours and fifteen minutes, it’s a marathon.
Full analysis when you click the link . . .
Compounding this observation is the fact that Anderson builds to a climax at the two hour mark, for seemingly no reason. The editing and the musical cues get amped up, Tom Cruise gets blindsided by the reporter, William H. Macy freaks at the bar, Stanley Spector pisses his pants, and John C. Reilly asks Melora Walters out on a date. And then . . . everything calms down for a bit. And then, everyone starts singing “Wise Up.” And it’s weird, but it’s a dénouement of sorts. And, yes, a LOT of questions remain unanswered at this point, but I can’t help wishing Anderson has chosen this surrealistic conceit to wrap his film instead of the one he actually chose.
Instead, the film goes on for another hour. And in this all-important hour, a grand total of four things happen: Cruise has his big Oscar scene as he breaks down at his dying father’s bedside; Phillip Baker Hall confesses a lot of bad shit to his wife; Reilly and Walters go on a date; and Julianne Moore overdoses on pills. And then . . . frogs. But before frogs, these four scenes take an entire hour to wrap things up, and I get that you want to allow the scenes the emotional room to breathe and all, but this is where the movie bogged down the first time I watched, and it’s where it bogged down this time.
I’m no filmmaker, and maybe for as much as was set up in the first two-thirds of Magnolia, it really did need an entire hour to let things play out. But everything I enjoyed about the movie happens in the first two hours, with the notable exception of Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” over the closing credits. Everything else – the virtuoso character introductions, Moore’s breakdown at the pharmacy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman ordering porn over the phone, “Wise Up,” Henry Gibson as the haughtily bitchy bar patron, Tom Cruise’s bizarre personality inversion – gets frontloaded.
And about the Tom Cruise performance. Yes, I was one of the countless who praised it as his best work in years, perhaps ever. And it is rather impressive. But my opinion of the performance itself went down a bit after the re-watch. With Frank Mackey, Cruise takes his natural gift for onscreen charisma and subverts it, uses it for evil instead of good. It’s the same devilish smile, the same rapid-fire delivery . . . just with a misogynist twist. In fact, I think what Anderson does with Cruise here is akin to what he would later do with Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love: that being to utilize a charismatic but limited performer in a manner which capitalizes on all his strengths and minimizes any weaknesses. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and a highlight of the film, but I’m not sure it’s so much the acting showcase I once thought it was.
And, okay, the frogs at long last. Yes, I understand about Exodus. And the foreshadowing. And “these strange things happen all the time.” It’s still hopelessly showy, rather narcissistic (oh, my characters are so important that they need a Biblical resolution), and far too in love with its own sense of randomness. That latter comment goes for the entire movie itself, actually. It’s a film whose whole is far less than the sum of its parts, but for a while there, those parts are really humming along.