A faceless narrator ruminates on the nature of chance and fate by telling of three different inexplicable occurrences through time. The most interesting anecdote is one where a young man's attempt at a suicidal fall is botched mid-plunge--when he ends up the victim of a murder to which he was an accessory. The convoluted mechanics of this strange--make that freak--occurrence are analyzed in exhaustive detail, complete with a visual breakdown by telestrator. It's not exactly the most obvious way to open any film about the anguished lives of a cross-section of people in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, but in terms of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, it is the perfect curtain- and eyebrow-raiser for three hours of the director's astonishingly powerful and audacious vision.
Anderson follows that bold prologue with an introductory sequence that can only be described as being cinematically alive. As a TV blares the ridiculously macho propaganda of male self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), one by one we're introduced to the characters, storylines, and relationships that intertwine over one eventful 24-hour period detailed in the film. Cancer-stricken television producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is on his deathbed, being tended to by his nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as his much younger trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) searches in vain for a way to cope. Elsewhere in the Valley is another terminal cancer victim, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who hasn't yet let his estranged, drug-addicted daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) know about his condition. In the meantime, he continues his long-running hosting duties on the popular kids-versus-adults quiz show What Do Kids Know?, whose current champion is child genius Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Serving as a counterpoint to Stanley's progression is the downward slide of Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former champion of the same show back in the '60s. Patrolling the Valley streets while talking to an invisible partner is Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly).
This highly kinetic sequence, fueled by energized editing and camera work, is ultimately held together by the song that plays in the background, a tune that succinctly sums up the main feeling of the characters and the film itself: Aimee Mann's cover of "One"--as in, "one is the loneliest number." Isolation is the primary theme of Magnolia, and the overwhelming pain that comes with the state its primary mood; as the characters each seek out connection and comfort, Anderson masterfully uses music to express that which is neither seen nor spoken. For a non-musical film, Magnolia is highly dependent on the music; there is nary a moment where either a song (usually by Mann, contributed seven to the film) or Jon Brion's instrumental score is playing in the background. Sometimes Anderson even has score and songs playing concurrently, and a number of times the music takes the foreground and the dialogue recedes into the background (most notably in the film's final scenes); both are bold moves, and they prove to be highly effective in showing the urgency of emotion that burns beneath the surface.
But no example of Anderson's use of music is as ingenius as in one bound-to-be-discussed scene that occurs about two-thirds into the film. As all the characters appear to be at their lowest, most uncertain point, the action completely stops and each person, regardless of where they are, sings along to Mann's somber "Wise Up." The tune is not playing on anyone's stereo as source music; it simply plays on the film's soundtrack, and everyone relates their pain through the song, whose chorus goes, "It's not going to stop 'til you wise up." The idea sounds ridiculous and almost overly cutesy on paper, but the scene sends chills while watching it unfold onscreen. When the signature line is sung for the final time, with the altered lyric "It's not goin
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