[Screen It]

(1999) (Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore) (R)

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Drama: A disparate group of loosely related people tries to cope with the problems and pitfalls of their lives in this look at one unusual day in Southern California.
In California's San Fernando Valley, any given day is likely to produce the unlikeliest of occurrences and coincidences. This is one of those days. While motivational guru Frank Mackey (TOM CRUISE) stirs up his all-male audience about how to nab women, veteran TV quiz show host Jimmy Gator (PHILIP BAKER HALL) is preparing for his next show that will feature whiz kid Stanley Spector (JEREMY BLACKMAN). Despite being a brilliant kid, he can't stand that his father, Rick (MICHAEL BOWEN), relentlessly pushes him in hopes of living vicariously through his success.

While Jimmy cheats on his wife, Rose (MELINDA DILLON,) and tries to made amends with their cocaine-addicted daughter, Claudia (MELORA WALTERS), he doesn't realize the damage his show can create. Case in point is Donnie Smith (WILLIAM H. MACY), a former child prodigy who's grown up into a disillusioned, middle-aged man. As such, he can't keep a job and wants dental braces so that he can be more like the male bartender that he's secretly in love with.

Meanwhile and across town, Linda Partridge (JULIANNE MOORE) is trying cope with her shattered life that includes her terminally ill husband, Earl (JASON ROBARDS) and the dual facts that she only married him for his money and has been cheating on him ever since. As she goes out to get more drugs to ease the last days of his life and contemplate considerably shortening hers, Earl awakens in a stupor, asking his at-home nurse, Phil Parma (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), to find his long estranged son.

While he does that, police officer Jim Kurring (JOHN C. REILLY) investigates a disturbance that leads to a dead body, a fact that Dixon (EMMANUEL JOHNSON), a streetwise young kid would like to help solve. Kurring has other calls to which he must respond, however, including one that leads him to Claudia's door.

As they begin a touch and go romance and Phil continues on his quest to find Earl's son, Stanley tries to cope with the pressures of performing, Frank deals with the probing questions of Gwenovier (APRIL GRACE), a visiting TV reporter, and Donnie drowns his sorrows with Thurston Howell (HENRY GIBSON) while plotting his revenge on his former employer. With each dealing with their own problems, a twist of fate and unexpected revelations soon affect all of them.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
It's been said that when referring to the word "close" that such a descriptive term only matters when one's playing horseshoes or tossing hand grenades. In reality, of course, many actions or activities can have "close" attributes ("They came this close to winning the game," "Boy, that was a close call," etc...) and filmmaking is certainly one of them.

While films can come close to breaking various box office records, scripts can do the same in emulating the novel from which they're adapted, and performers can come close to impersonating real life characters, some directors occasionally come close to perfection or at least to delivering a great film.

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those directors. While his previous films, "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights," clearly didn't light up any box office records and certainly weren't always palatable to even those who saw them, there's no denying that he has talent to spare. Indeed, while the subject matter may have turned off many viewers, his latter film about the porn industry was critically lauded, earned some of its performers Oscar nominations, and definitely showed that Anderson was a talent to watch and be reckoned with (he also earned a nomination for his screenplay).

Now he's delivered "Magnolia," a sprawling film about a day in the lives of some intriguing and fascinating, but ultimately depressed and depressing characters in Southern California. Way too long and far too self-indulgent, the film is also often brilliant, featuring imaginative direction and a bevy of great performances from a talented cast who inhabit some of the more interesting and well-defined characters you'll see all year.

Of course, with more than three hours in which to "play," one would hope that such characters would come off that way. In fact, and returning to the "close" analogies, one of this film's biggest problems is that it didn't spend anywhere close enough to the necessary time in the editing booth to trim much of its superfluous length and unnecessary material.

It's also one of those films that's the cinematic equivalent of a spectacular train wreck. As such, the visuals are impressive and there's a plethora of distraught, confused, angry and/or dying characters that will simultaneously disgust and compel viewers to continue watching. In essence, the film is a glorified, melodramatic soap opera filled with cheating spouses, estranged families and those who are terminally ill, or at minimum, seriously disillusioned and unhappy.

It's certainly not a cheery conglomeration of people and stories, yet one feels compelled to watch and suffer in their misery as if walking out midway through would insure that something interesting or perhaps even spectacular might be missed.

In fact, that's what drives Anderson's films. Much like Scorsese before him, the young director has a knack for creating compelling, if not likable characters along with plenty of related volatility, and one's never sure when some character's going to crack or some event will occur that will spin events around in a new direction.

Unfortunately and notwithstanding an opening that promises a "news of the bizarre" atmosphere and an ending containing what has to be the oddest deus ex machina-based conclusion I've ever seen in any film, nothing much ever does happen. Sure, we slowly but inevitably discover how the characters and their situations are interconnected - sometimes rather loosely - but none of it's particularly earth-shattering and certainly could have occurred in far less time.

In the credits Anderson refers to himself as P.T. and although those are obviously his initials, one has to wonder if he's making a self-reference to another P.T. - as in Barnum - whose claim to fame was putting on "the greatest show on Earth." Indeed, the director puts on his own three-ring circus filled with characters who symbolize the magnolia of the title. They're big and showy, but they ultimately create quite a mess and result in a less than savory odor of rot.

It's to Anderson's credit of creating compelling characters -- as well as the wonderful, if often similarly unsavory performances of his great cast -- that we stick around, accept that smell and see what then may bloom and what else will fall to the ground.

One certainly can't complain about the great cast Anderson has assembled and their performances are what will leave an indelible mark on the psyche of many a moviegoer. Probably the strongest and certainly the flashiest comes from Tom Cruise ("Eyes Wide Shut," "Mission: Impossible"). Although his near misogynist, sexual motivator character certainly isn't that appealing, Cruise gives him so much gusto and primeval smarminess that you can't help but be fascinated by him and his subsequent reactions to having his toughened exterior shell cracked.

Meanwhile, both William H. Macy ("Happy, Texas," "Fargo") and Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Flawless," "Patch Adams") are good in their respective roles as the former quiz kid champion and a male nurse. Julianne Moore ("The End of the Affair," "An Ideal Husband") does her tired, but still effective bit as the distraught and disillusioned wife, and Philip Baker Hall ("Cradle Will Rock," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") does a great job at creating a compellingly flawed quiz show host.

The rest of the performances, including those from Jason Robards ("Enemy of the State," "A Thousand Acres"), Melora Walters ("Boogie Nights," "Eraser"), John C. Reilly ("For Love of the Game," "Boogie Nights") and Jeremy Blackman (making his feature film debut) also range from strong to decent.

Technical credits are top-notch. Editor Dylan Tichenor ("Hurlyburly," "Boogie Nights") gets quite a workout tightly interweaving the many stories, Jon Brion's ("Hard Eight") score is quite good (and is accompanied by a collection of ditties by songwriter Aimee Mann and the group Supertramp), and Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit's ("8 Millimeter," "Boogie Nights") visualization of the story is fabulous and continuously fascinating to watch.

Ultimately, however, the film is simply too long and contains a few too many characters and subplots that could and should have been trimmed or altogether excised. In the end and when boiled down to its purest form, it's essentially nothing but a grandiose soap opera that progressively becomes more melodramatic as the day wears on and new revelations are unearthed.

If you happen to enjoy such soap opera-like material with its infidelities, estranged families and generally unhappy people, this may be the film for you. That's not to mean that if you don't like that you'll automatically hate the film, but much like "Boogie Nights" the multi-layered stories and complex characters are something of an acquired taste. And while that earlier film may have had similar "ugly" problems, at least it had a rapid pace and overall thrust - no pun intended - that kept it both moving along and interesting to watch.

This one may have many people repeatedly checking their watches wondering how much longer it's going to go on and/or when something genuinely worthwhile is going to develop. It eventually does - in a scene that will have those Budweiser frogs croaking in shocked astonishment - but other moments - including a bit where all of the characters actually sing aloud with a song on the soundtrack - will have you wondering if Anderson may need an outside conscience to tell him when enough is enough.

Occasionally brilliant, but just as often flawed, "Magnolia" will probably divide audiences into those who see greatness beyond the problems and others who simply won't see the point of it all. We fall somewhere toward the earlier bunch and thus give the film - that warrants a "close but no cigar" label and will probably stick with you for some time after seeing it -- a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 10, 1999 / Posted January 7, 2000

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