Paul Thomas Anderson’s dour, dizzying ‘Magnolia’ kicks off our ‘Take Two’ column

I’ve seen so many films in my lifetime that it amazes me I can recall things about them even decades after a single viewing. Every year, I add several hundred new films to that list, and I also revisit several hundred old films while also seeing older films for the first time as much as possible. I average three movies a day, and it’s entirely likely that between January 1st and December 31st each year, I screen 1000 films or more.

So what sticks? And why? How is it possible that I can retain lines of dialogue or shots or other details about any of those movies, much less something I saw when I was 17 or 18 years old?

More importantly, should I really be able to say that I’ve got an opinion about a film that I saw over 20 years ago? How much of that opinion do you think would be the same today?

When those films come up in conversation and I say, “Oh, I love that” or “Wow, I hate that film,” how can I be sure that I’d feel that way now? There are movies about which I hold very strong positive or negative opinions, and it only recently occurred to me that those opinions might be different now. It’s certainly happened. I’ve seen films and been suddenly struck by some new detail or idea or theme that hits me in some whole new way. It’s one of the most important reasons I re-watch any film.

For that reason, I’ve decided to start a column called “Take Two,” and the mission statement for the series is very clear:

It is the responsibility of the working film critic to not only see and review as many new releases as possible, both domestic and international, but also to constantly revisit films in order to challenge the critic’s own opinions. Moreover, it is important to review those films as you would any other film. Considering how many movies are constantly available to audiences today, every film should be considered new to someone.

Critics should take it upon themselves to revisit old films, to feel free to have a new opinion of even the most revered movies, and to always remind themselves and their audiences that films do not belong on shelves. They must be seen and shared and constantly re-examined. It is the only way film as a whole can be healthy.
Where do we start?

Well, my New Year’s Eve movie this year, started before midnight, finished after, was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” on Blu-ray. When the film came out, I saw it several times. Once at a press screening at New Line. Once at BNAT. Once again in a theater once it was playing. And then once when the DVD was released in 2000. And since then, I haven’t watched it once. I felt like I’d digested it fully.

Oddly, though, when I first thought about watching “Magnolia” about a month ago, I couldn’t remember anything about it except for a few images. Part of the reason for that is because I use the soundtrack to the film, the score by Jon Brion, as writing music whenever I’m doing creative work. I’ve used the “Magnolia” score while writing so many times that when I hear the music, I don’t think of Anderson’s film. I think about all the things I’ve written to it, and I think about the dynamics of the score, the way it masterfully circles in on itself, rising and falling. That music has become utilitarian to me, and I think as a result, I have a hard time remembering the movie that went with the score.

When the film came out, I was very close to wrapping up my first decade of living in Los Angeles. I was writing for Ain’t It Cool. I was working on various film and theater projects. I was dating and enjoying being single. It was a very free moment for me, coming on the heels of a number of years of personal turmoil. I had bounced back from several blows to the ego and the bank account, and I was enjoying what I was doing pretty much every single day.

At 29 years old, I felt like I’d gone through my fair share of hell and sorrow during my time in LA, and I’d seen people going through even worse. 1999 was an astounding year of movies, and being able to write about them as that was happening was such a pleasure. David Fincher, Brad Bird, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Almodovar, the Wachowskis, Shyamalan, Mike Leigh, David Lynch, Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Kim Peirce, Anthony Minghella, Patrice Leconte, Tim Burton, and Stanley Goddamn Kubrick… all of these artists released movies that year that are absolutely top-notch, and any two or three of them would constitute a strong year of movies. But all of that? In 12 months?

Coming off of “Boogie Nights,” expectations couldn’t have been higher for Paul Thomas Anderson and whatever he was working on. I read about half the script while they were shooting and stopped because I realized how much of what the film itself was going to be was in Anderson’s head, not on the page. The script is a good read on its own, but it’s not even half of the actual experience in the theater of seeing “Magnolia.” The movie is a one-of-a-kind, a beautiful and painful drop into the seething, heaving heart of LA, and while I liked it quite a bit the first time I saw it, I also felt strongly about certain missteps, choices that pulled me out of things. My general take in the last few years when the film came up was, “Solid and ambitious but undisciplined. Wants to be great so much that it ends up fumbling in the home stretch.”

When you reach for greatness, you risk looking ridiculous, and Anderson courts disaster in moment after moment of this film. When people talk about what they don’t like about this film, I can almost guarantee they’re talking about one of the things that makes me love the film. I think the opening is a marvel, a beautiful frantic sweaty marvel, with Ricky Jay’s voice leading us through this dizzying flurry of information about these insane coincidental moments, each of them apparently proof that the universe does indeed have a sense of humor. A very, very sick and twisted sense of humor, sure, but it counts.

The way it builds to the opening notes of Aimee Mann’s cover of “One” is still one of my favorite openings in recent film history. I thought for sure the film would have to slow down or settle into longer stretches after an opening like that, but Anderson’s pacing in “Magnolia” is relentless, hammering at the audience. He’s telling several different stories, and he’s breathless to tell them all, and so the entire thing has this sort of crazy jumbled skipping back and forth editing rhythm that, once you really look at what he’s doing, isn’t actually crazy at all. He’s made a film here about people who are out of control or realizing they have no control or surrendering control, people who are drowning and reaching out for anything that keeps them above water.

I love this cast. One of my big hesitations about the film back in ’99/2000 was Julianne Moore’s storyline, her big sobbing screaming scenes played too shrill and crazy. Watching her this time, I am mainly just saddened for her. She’s in horrifying emotional pain. When she tells Michael Murphy (an Altman favorite, a fact that I’m sure Anderson knew when he chose him) that she doesn’t want any of Earl’s money when he dies because she married him for that money. She tells him her worst secret, that she never loved Earl, and now that she’s watching him get eaten alive by cancer, she is collapsing. She needs to get right somehow, and her decision to kill herself doesn’t seem to be a huge stretch. I just read Artie Lange’s book about his own suicide attempt, and his actual description of the event, his explanation of his emotional state at the time, was chilling precisely because of how matter of fact he was about it. Once Linda reaches her decision to kill herself, it seems like an oddly peaceful process. Moore makes some huge choices here about how far to pitch her grief in scenes throughout the movie, and one in particular gets me. I didn’t realize until this viewing that the same Pat Healy who is in “Compliance” and “Cheap Thrills” is in this film as the kid working at the pharmacy who gets suspicious when Moore drops off a thick stack of prescriptions for various things. He pokes at her and pokes at her until she finally goes off, and when she does, she is inarguable. She is so hurt and so angry and so embarrassed all at once.

Every conversation (aka argument) people are having right now about “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is a conversation (aka argument) that played out when Tom Cruise played Frank TJ Mackey for Anderson. When Anderson cuts from Earl Partridge’s bedroom to Mackey making his entrance at a “Seduce and Destroy” seminar, he uses “Thus Spake Zarathrustra,” and that last shot of Jason Robards and Philip Seymour Hoffman together, Robards in the bed, Hoffman standing there beside it, is absolutely 100% no question about it a “2001” quote, and a very playful one. Cruise is very good in the film, and I love the way the film guts Mackey after showing him onstage. First there’s the interview, and watching him lose control of what he believes is going to be a harmless fluffy profile piece is pretty great. Once he finally gets summoned to return home and face Earl on his deathbed, though, it’s just brutal, and Cruise seems thrilled to be playing this material. I’m not sure I ever noticed how Cruise’s “Seduce and Destroy” philosophy as explained during his monologue is mirrored by Anderson’s own structure in the script. He talks about setting a tragedy up as a trap, and each of these storylines has tragedy at the heart of it, baiting us and drawing us into these character’s lives. Earl, during one of his rare coherent moments, talks about the film as if he knows he’s a character in it, and Phil Parma also refers to life as if it is a movie that he’s in. It’s risky poking at the fourth wall like that, but it works.

I forgot just how beautifully sad William Macy is in the film, and I think one of the great moments in Anderson’s filmography is that shot in the bar where we finally realize why Macy wants the braces as he watches Brad the bartender working. There is such longing, such need radiating off of Macy the entire time, and the sadness isn’t just because he’s trying so hard to hold on to the glory he experienced as a kid when he was Quiz Kid Donnie Smith. Like everyone else in the film, he is lonely, free-falling his way through life. I think what I forgot about “Magnolia” is just how painful the film is. The entire movie is about these people, all damaged, all in pain, all looking for something that will ease that sorrow for even a moment. There are two moments in the film where Anderson makes a huge stylistic choice that could easily derail the movie, and I think he pulls both of them off. There’s the moment in the film where all the characters begin to sing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” and seeing the film this time, I found that incredibly moving. It is a gentle small song, shot through with deep longing, and seeing how this thought connects all of these people at this one particular moment really works.

The other big moment, of course, is the frogs, and that was the moment I had trouble with the first time around with the movie. Looking at it now, though, I don’t see how the film could work without it. This is a movie in which the hand of fate absolutely steers these people, and without this miracle that comes at just the right moment, things would end very differently for all of them. It’s funny how the film never really mentions God explicitly, because frogs falling from the sky seems like an Old Testament kind of move. It unifies these stories, bringing them all together on this one pivot point, over-ruling all of the small coincidences that have been mounting throughout the film.

There is so much beauty in this film, and it is so big, so jam-packed with incident and character and giant untamed emotion. I understand why I haven’t revisited it in a while. It’s a hard movie. It is exhausting in many ways. But it has aged well, and I feel like coming on the heels of “Boogie Nights,” it was hard to simply see this as a film and not compare it to that film. It turned out to be exactly the right film for me to watch as one year ended and another began, and the right way for me to kick this column off. “Magnolia” left me feeling replenished, and ready for a busy, productive 2014.

Join me here next Wednesday as I revisit a film that I was obsessed with when it came out but that I haven’t seen now in 20 years, Oliver Stone’s controversial and highly influential “JFK.”