With such a promising ensemble, it’s hard to see how Magnolia could be anything other than a superbly layered character study of intertwining lives. Like Desperate Housewives, but over the course of two and a half hours, rather than an aeon. Paul Thomas Anderson’s dramatic titan sees a collection of stories, the highs and lows of a rough handful of individuals connected by chance, flimsy narratives or shady dealings. Whether it works or not, it’s hard not to appreciate how big of an ask Anderson proposes to his cast, a project that has to have the right amount of connection between roles, enough to engage an audience, but not enough to incite obvious cliché.
It’s a tightrope that Anderson walks with confidence, and he pulls Magnolia off with a certain gravitas not seen in his later projects. The layered storytelling is still visible in the likes of Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood, but the on-the-nose style found within this mosaic of character interactions isn’t present in his later work. Often, it feels like Anderson is rather proud of pulling this intricate character study off, and there are moments where this pride spills into the direction and the camerawork. His cockiness sometimes pays off with some desperately interesting twists and unexpected turns, but ultimately there are more misses than hits in this department.
An issue with any film that looks to replicate the storytelling of Magnolia is the issue of falling into the rather drab character arcs. Some are flimsy at best, their inclusion feeling more for light-hearted breathers than anything we could consider to be heavy hitting. The best of these characters come out in those that have no trouble translating themselves into other projects. Their ability to play more than one, flatlining character is detrimental to the success they find within this ensemble. For this reason, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Phillip Baker Hall all make for the more engaging moments of the movie.
That’s not to say that some supporting characters don’t have interesting bit parts. William H. Macy is, as ever, a real treat on the screen, his role doesn’t feel all that important though. John C. Reilly continues his collaborative efforts with early Anderson with a role that feels farcical at best, and Alfred Molina is tragically rather forgettable. Even some moments within the story just feel rather bland or out of place. The culmination of all of these stories is tangible, but not the greatest end we could’ve received to such a lengthy build-up. Underwhelming closure is a real pain, but the scope and size of the project makes it rather forgivable.
I recognise the charm and skill going into the production of Magnolia, but some of it falls apart rather infrequently, leading to some moments that do feel horribly inconsistent. We leap between scenes that rarely have anything to do with one another until a realisation hours in advance, and until then we find ourselves coupled with a mixed bag of performances that thankfully do come together in a strong enough manner by the end of it all. Certainly enjoyable, but Anderson has done far better than this with far less time.