Magnolia (1999)


Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Stars: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Juilanne Moore, John C Reilly, William H Macy, Philip Baker

My God, it’s full of frogs!

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Magnolia for ages now. There Will Be Blood was my first taste of Paul Thomas Anderson and has rapidly become one of my top five favourite films I’ve seen. Then I saw Punch-Drunk Love which I think is a little underrated, and then Hard Eight (or Sydney as it should’ve been called) which is a striking debut, although definitely not up to scratch with the others as mentioned. And then there’s Magnolia! Many cite it as the best film ever made and Paul himself has even gone on record saying that he’ll never do a film as good as Magnolia again. That could well be true.

Whilst at the time of writing, I still do prefer There Will Be Blood, there’s no denying the marvel of Magnolia. It’s sheer audacity is enough to be respected, yet somehow Paul Thomas Anderson (why is his name so frigging long? I’m just going to call him Paul) manages to handle this great big beast he’s created with flawless ease. Magnolia is basically like Love Actually with lots of little separate stories going on which are loosely inter-connected with each other. However, Paul isn’t too concerned with love. He’s more interested in the bleaker side of life such as: child abuse, drug addiction, rejection, loneliness and regret. For most people, the idea of a three hour long film with all these themes would be a turn off. However, I’d urge you to stick with it.

To be honest, I loved Magnolia from the moment it began. It tells three stories within the first five minutes in the whimsical style of Amelie. They’re expertly told, but also quite misleading. We’re lead to believe that the big story which is about to follow will end in a way which connects all the characters, but it never does. Or at least, they don’t come together as explicitly as the first three stories told. These first five minutes would make a superb short film of its own, alas it’s just a warm-up for the main event. Suddenly the depressing One is the Loneliest Number starts to play as the titles bloom out of a brilliant magnolia flower. What plays is basically a music video with all the depressed characters being introduced whilst the fitting song plays over them.

Magnolia has over ten main characters and by some sort of miracle, Paul manages to develop each one deeply. Each character is so rich with detail and each has a story which manages to be thoroughly engaging and entertaining. I mentioned all the heavy themes at the start, but Magnolia is actually quite a funny film in places too. If I were to mention what I loved about each charcter and their story then this review would probably be as long as the screenplay for Magnolia, so I’ll just mention a couple of my absolute favourites. Probably the most extraordinary character arc is Tom Cruise’s character, Frank. We despise him at the start with his disgusting misogynistic ramblings, however as his arc goes on we see him turn from cocky a prat into a vengeful and weeping little boy. Paul gives us just enough to suggest why his character is the way he is, yet leaves enough ambiguity to let us come to our own conclusions.


Another fascinating character is Donnie Smith, the child star who’s now all grown up and forgotten. His story is arguably the most moving. He’s a drunk whose lost his job and is hopelessly in love with a barman who doesn’t love him back. One of the saddest parts of the film, for me, was when Donnie got drunk at the bar and started rambling about how much love he had to give. What makes all these stories so engaging is that they’re all so identifiable, or at least will be. We’ve all felt alone, we’ve all felt love, we’ll all have to cope with dying or seeing a loved one die etc. this is perhaps the secret to Magnolia’s greatness.

The acting is also brilliant across the board. Tom Cruise is an actor I normally can’t stand, yet here he’s Oscar-worthy. He’s been given such a complex character to play and he plays it with terrifying ease. The iconic moment when he confesses his hatred to his dying father feels almost too real. Julianne Moore is also another one who stands out. Her hysterical suicidal outbursts are almost exemplary. I also loved Philip Baker Hall as the game show host dying of cancer. At first he’s a character who you feel deep sympathy for until you find out the dark secret he’s harbouring. The scene where he confesses his secrets to his wife is another stand-out moment.


Paul’s directing is nothing short of masterful, as ever. It might not have the same Kubrickian shots like, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood had but there is still a distinct style which holds the film together. I loved the long and involving tracking shots and some of the editing was extraordinary. At times it reminded me of a Christopher Nolan film as there are several powerful moments in Magnolia where stories all come together with one character narrating over a different unconnected image involving another character. It’s difficult to explain, but it works and creates a superb mood. There’s even an inspired moment where all the characters burst into song, thus unifying them even further.

Magnolia really is the definition of a masterpiece. You can tell that Paul set out to create the greatest film ever made and he has pretty much succeeded. It’s such a magnificently rich, deep and emotional film. In fact, it’s so deep that it would take you at least three viewings to totally appreciate it all. It’s a brave piece of work and even features a moment of bizarre surrealism towards the end which should feel completely out of place, but doesn’t. Magnolia works on so many levels. It’s not so pretentious that it’s inaccessible to average movie-going audiences, however if you want to dig deeper into it then there’s more than enough there to allow it. I certainly can’t wait to experience it all again.



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