Magnolia and more
Paul Thomas Anderson
Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters
(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 8 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
Director Paul Thomas Anderson, at 29, with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights already to his credit, was firmly established as an amazingly talented young filmmaker with technique to burn when he brought his audacious, overstuffed, messy, unapologetic, and impossibly confident vision of Magnolia to the screen in 1999. The film is a thickly-layered intersection of seemingly disconnected lives in a California that seems to be crashing at a very high speed, unknowingly, into an unmovable mass of coincidences.
Throughout, Anderson reaches for moments to express the almost inexpressible; the feelings that come with realizing the real terms of loss, with trying for a connection that’s so real and genuine that it almost can’t possibly exist. Early on, Jason Robards’ cancer-ridden Earl Partridge cries from his death bed that he can’t hold onto it all any longer, all of the immense regrets and immense amounts of love and feeling and the need to put it across to someone who will be there for you in spite of everything. And in a way, this was Anderson’s way of trying to come to terms and say all of it with a film.
To come close, he needed a three-hour epic that never stops whirring, bouncing non-stop among its sprawling cast who cushion their character’s loneliness with overflows of words. As the movie climbs towards its break point, with each story coming apart almost simultaneously, William H. Macy’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith almost breaks down in a bar to Supertramp: “It’s an electrical charge that finds its way across the universe and it lands in your body, and your head…” He’s trying to make three strangers understand what it was like to be struck by lighting as a child but he could have just as easily been referring back to Magnolia.
That it goes over the top is an inseparable part of its appeal. The dialog can be clunky at times, with some single lines that feel like entire speeches, and the film’s open-hearted emotional pitch never lets up. It aims high and misses, of course, but it misses spectacularly and brilliantly. And its final achievement isn’t in the missing or even in the attempt, but in how its shortfalls show how incredibly far it dared to go. Like Anderson’s best films it doesn’t just fall apart or sputter out, it screams off the tracks in a fireball. Here, in the end, when the clouds finally explode, the LA sky just doesn’t rain but instead it pours frogs.
So often when we go to the movies we just hope that the filmmakers can give us something, anything, that rings true, or mad, or real, that we can hold onto. Perhaps this is because so many seem incapable of delivering on even our diminished expectations. The something that Anderson’s films give to us is beyond our wildest hopes, truly wide-screen in both its cinematic scope and in the emotions and truths that they sometimes clumsily, other times gracefully, chase after. He’s one of this generation’s finest filmmakers, taking liberally and nakedly from his touchstones at the service of his expansive vision; evolving, outpacing his contemporaries, still exploring his pure love of the form.
With Magnolia, Anderson faced down the pressure of outdoing Boogie Nights with a film even more massive, but one that drilled even closer to the human heart, that got more involved with its characters’ messy interiors while it distracted you with the noise of events outside. And one that was even more willing to come out and say that, no matter how far gone we can become, it’s only the connections that we choose to make with each other that can save us. Jon Langmead
The Cider House Rules
Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Michael Caine, Erykah Badu, Delroy Lindo
(Miramax; US theatrical: 10 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
The Cider House Rules, the lush adaptation of John Irving’s novel of the same name, is the most tasteful movie ever made on the topic of orphans, abortion, and father-daughter incest.
This genteel, semi-Dickensian period piece, set in rural Maine during the Second World War, will make viewers want to go out and get the original novel, because it’s possible to glimpse, behind the uneven performances and the beautiful but too-obvious score by Rachel Portman, the outline of a fascinating story of moral choices.
But, as in too many movie adaptations of thoughtful novels, the subtleties get Hollywooded away, leaving only the heavy-handed symbolism and cringingly obvious dialogue. Consider, for instance, the moment when the wise and kind Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), the head of an orphanage who also is an ether addict and abortion doctor, intones over the grave of a young woman who tried to give herself an abortion: “She died of secrecy. She died of ignorance.”
The movie deals with the question of abortion in a perhaps too-evenhanded way. It doesn’t hesitate to show Dr. Larch’s young assistant, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) disposing of aborted fetuses in an incinerator, nor his distaste at doing so. (He was born at the orphanage, and into this life.)
And when a gorgeous young unmarried couple, played by Paul Rudd and Charlize Theron, arrive at the orphanage for an abortion, their choice is implicitly called into question when Rudd, a serviceman, is later paralyzed from the waist down and thus unable to father any more children.
The movie ultimately comes down on the side of abortion rights, but not very courageously: After young Homer, who’s opposed to abortion, leaves the orphanage and ends up at an apple farm owned by Rudd’s family, one of the migrant apple-pickers is impregnated by her own father. Wells has a change of heart and helps end the young woman’s pregnancy – and who, but for a few pro-life fanatics, would not have done so in similar circumstances? The moral choice is hardly a choice at all.
There is a second choice in the movie that feels limp and unexamined: All along, Dr. Larch has told young Homer that he has a heart condition and is unfit for military service. But near the end of the movie, when Homer, and the audience, learn that this was Larch’s fabrication, designed to keep Homer out of the clutches of the local draft board and forever at the orphanage, Homer does little more than grin with gratitude.
But this was the Second World War, not Vietnam, and the moral choice could not have been clearer: Isn’t it likey that most young men of the time would have been furious at the deception, or at the very least conflicted?
There’s a moment of inadvertent comedy earlier in the movie when Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells, describing what he thinks to be his heart ailment, says, in his typical expressionless and murmuring style, “I’m not supposed to get excited – no strain, no stress.”
It’s the most believable line of dialogue in the movie and, for that matter, in Maguire’s entire career. In Cider House Rules, not only do Michael Caine (who won a best supporting actor Oscar for this role), Delroy Lindo, and Charlize Theron all out-act him, even Paul Rudd does!
Maguire seems deeply depressed throughout this movie, even when he’s having a fling with the delectable Theron, while Rudd’s off fighting for his country. His acting style is perhaps unique in the history of the cinema: It’s utterly wooden, yet in a disturbingly limp kind of way. (Although he’s gone on to earn many millions as Spiderman, Maguire here and in his other roles most resembles another legendary cartoon character, Pinocchio, suspended somewhere between puppet and real human being.) In a movie filled with moral soft spots, his performance is the softest spot of all.
There isn’t much more to say about this rapidly rotting would-be classic except for this: Buy the book. Michael Antman