Classic Review – Magnolia (1999)

Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey

Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey


Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring John C. Reilly, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Jeremy Blackman, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Melora Walters

Review by Jordan

Like the petals on a magnolia, we are all connected. Not always directly, our paths don’t always cross, and like one facing north and the other south we may never know each other exist, but the emotions that we share are universal and the needs of our hearts often fulfilled just as we feel the wind is stirring and our grip is loosening. Paul Thomas Anderson’s grand opus on life, pain and loss begins with vignettes on coincidence, and ultimately fate, and throughout ponders on its recurring theme that “we might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us” before reaching its now legendary conclusion and having just one thing to say after 3 tumultuous hours…

All we need is love.

Winner of Best Film at the 2000 Berlin International Film Festival, Oscar nominated for Tom Cruise’s fearless performance and Aimee Mann’s wonderful original song Save Me and my 26th favourite film of all time, Magnolia is a day long journey through the lives of both tortured and hopeful souls in the San Fernando Valley all seeking a connection, or redemption. Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a good man seeking a companion responds to a 911 call for disturbance where he happens upon Claudia Gator (Melora Walters), a drug-addict and victim of child abuse whom he immediately cares for. Claudia’s father is Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), popular host of long-running game show What Do Kids Know? and secret cancer sufferer with a month to live. The current whiz kid on What Do Kids Know? is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), being used by his neglectful father and seemingly following in the footsteps of ‘former whiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy),’ who is suffering severely with depression and loneliness. This show is produced by Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is currently lying on his death bed being cared for by Phil Palmer (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a nurse desperately wanting to help track down his estranged son Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a raging misogynist and motivational speaker encouraging his audience of men to “seduce and destroy,” while Earl’s second wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is overcome with regret after finally falling in love with him now that he is dying, having cheated on him a number of times and only marrying him for his money.

As the tagline says: things fall down, people look up, and when it rains, it pours.

Julianne Moore and Jason Robards

Julianne Moore and Jason Robards

Around the midpoint of Magnolia, in the audience of What Do Kids Know? a sign is briefly visible curiously reading ‘Exodus 8: 2,’ referring to a passage in the Bible speaking of Israel’s captivity in Egypt: And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs. Those who have seen this film can understand the frog reference, and I believe that its meaning lies with the feelings our tortured characters are harbouring; grief, regret, sorrow, heartache… if you can’t let these go then an incredible act will help dissolve them for you. Of course there are many theories as to Magnolia’s ending, and in fact it’s very title, and with Anderson refusing to comment whichever you agree with is ultimately that which is correct.

With every element conquered with such precision, from the acting (in particular Cruise and Moore who throw caution to the wind with stunningly brave performances), to the lively though lyrically melancholic music of Aimee Mann and Jon Brion and the cinematography, editing, writing, directing and running time, this is a masterpiece I absolutely cherish and hold in incredibly high regard as an example of the story-telling format that is film. The interwoven narratives are not used as a gimmick, but rather essential in conveying a truthful and heart-felt central theme, and the lesser attention paid to the documentary-like opening the better, as although it is indeed an outstanding sequence it quite intentionally promises a different journey leading to a different outcome than what transpires. We can’t predict where life will take us, but as Officer Kurring tells us, we can “do good,” perhaps leading to not only fulfilment for ourselves but love and happiness for others.

Like the petals on a magnolia, we are all connected.

As evidenced in Magnolia’s final, beautiful shot, these connections can be life-changing.

5 Wise Up sing-alongs out of 5

22 responses to “Classic Review – Magnolia (1999)

  1. I need to watch this again – the first time I found the disconnectedness confusing. But it was memorable. I knew it was good because it was oblique and memorable at the same time, I just didn’t quite understand it. I’m older now, so I think it would make more sense to me now.

    • Hi Denise. I definitely recommend watching it again; the characters arcs don’t cross in the traditional sense which I found confusing upon first viewing too, but the more you watch it the more it unravels into a real work of art.

  2. Agreed. While it might be PTA’s most maligned film, I like Magnolia a lot, as well. My 24th favorite of all time? Probably not. But very good all the same. 🙂

    • There are some critics that for whatever reason dislike it, but Roger Ebert labelling it one of his ‘Great Movies’ and PTA referring to it as his favourite work more than overshadow them.
      Glad you like it as well!

  3. What do you value most in film? Lately I’ve been putting camera work and acting ahead of coherent story. Both just make film more enjoyable for me and while the story in magnolia is great its the acting and pta shots that make this a top ten film for me. The long unbroken shit of entering the studio during a rain storm and when we first meet brad in the bar are two of my favorite shots of all time. Tom cruise, Jason robards, Phillip baker hall,and pPhillip Seymour Hoffman give career performances. I love this film.

    • I assume you meant “long unbroken shot?” ha.
      Very hard question! looking back at the films I love most, it has to be camera work/acting also: Lynch, Argento (although that is mostly camera/lighting/music), Malick, Kubrick.
      Magnolia is certainly a rare example of excelling in every aspect, and I agree with everything you mentioned.

  4. I absolutely agree with everything you said. It is a film that is better every time you watch it. It is my top 20 for sure and easily P.T. Anderson’s most ambitious film from a writer’s point of view.

    • That’s great to hear. It really is amazing how it improves with each viewing considering its length, and you can really tell that PTA held nothing back in making his vision come to life.
      Cheers, Jordan

  5. great review of a great film, and nice that you’ve reposted it in light of the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I read somewhere that when Anderson was filming, he had the frogs planned but didn’t know about Exodus at all. It was Henry Gibson who mentioned to him that the frogs were from Exodus, and so Anderson then went about inserting a few references to it (I think you also see the Exodus quote at a bus stop).

    • Ah that is very interesting! There is also a very obvious reference (once you know it is there) atop the apartment building the boy jumps from at the film’s beginning.
      Cheers, Jordan

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