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Released 1999. Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS. TEN PEOPLE. ONE BREATHLESS RUSH OF HUMANITY. WELCOME TO THE CENTRE OF MISERY in San Fernando Valley. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is a sprawling, operatic and frenetic jigsaw puzzle of a drama about disconnection, association and reaching out, among many other things. Ambitious in scope, the movie trawls through the gamut of emotions from anger to fear, relief and sorrow, resentment and regret.

The multiple-narrative strands comprise of some 30 speaking parts, including a rich old man on his deathbed, his trophy wife, his estranged son, his nurse, a TV host, his wife, his junkie daughter, a policeman, a whiz kid and a former whiz kid. Each of them has a story to tell, each of them crosses another’s path by chance and design in the space of one tumultuous night that culminates in a finale of biblical proportions. For his meticulously pieced jigsaw puzzle Anderson has assembled a strong lineup, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, Melinda Dillon, John C. Reilly and Tom Cruise.

Right from the first frame when a narrator relates several anecdotes of quirky accidents and happenstance, Magnolia establishes the central theme of fate and coincidence. Like a book by Paul Auster on human follies and improbable connections all strung by invisible threads, only more intense and feverish.

For the next three hours, Anderson commands our attention as he weaves the stories of those troubled souls one by one. The pacing has an energetic fluidity, accompanied by background music of increasing hurry, like a noose being tightened.

While the ensemble cast flesh out the interwoven stories in full earnestness, this is decidedly nobody’s story. They are all playing bit parts in a grand opera where the prima donna is fate itself. Aimee Mann’s songs used in several sequences make for a fine way to reflect the sentiments and give the film a rhythmic momentum. One of the most memorable scenes involves the main characters singing ‘Save Me’ one after another, a mournful song of melancholy and introspection, and an unexpected method to pause and peer into the psyche of this condemned lot.

Stitching the disparate moments into a coherent and absorbing narrative leaves no doubt to Anderson’s skills. Making sense of the branching threads of the plot adds to his commendable achievement. And making sure not a single bit falls apart until the final reckoning moment is plain remarkable.

Magnolia is a dynamic film coursing with an emotional urgency through its frames. From the rich man in his mansion to the has-been stealing cash for a dental job, from a kid who knows all the answers to junkie who has lost her way, all of them are fighting against life’s currents in little boats as they search for forgiveness, love and renewal.


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