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Friday, Feb. 25, 2000


Moments to shiver your timbers

Each year, I must see close to a couple hundred films; some soar, some sink, but I could count on one hand the films that are so astounding, so revelatory, so sublime, that they can produce a chill down my spine. Director Paul Thomas Anderson's epic "Magnolia," his strong follow-up to 1997's "Boogie Nights," did that to me not just once, but three times. Was it better than sex? Damn close.

The first moment is the instant "Magnolia" kicks off: There's barely even time to lean back before the film launches into a rapid-fire prologue of seemingly random incidents. Using a concentrated flurry of images, it alternates between true but almost unbelievable coincidences separated by time and place: a robbery in London; a forest fire in Nevada; and a suicide leap in L.A. Point being? Wait and see.

"Magnolia" starts on a rush, and doesn't let up: The film drops us in media res, as 12 disparate souls in the San Fernando Valley get up for what seems to be just another day, but will turn out to be anything but. We see a harried L.A. cop (John C. Reilly) responding to domestic disturbances, and a TV game-show host (Philip Baker Hall) having a stormy visit with his coked-out daughter (Melora Walters). A former game-show child genius turned adult idiot (William H. Macy) manages to both crash his car and get fired before lunch, while a cynical self-help guru (Tom Cruise) with a misogynistic message of phallic pride spurs on an audience of rowdy men. A dying TV producer (Jason Robards) has a last wish that he confesses to his caregiver (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while his trophy wife (Julianne Moore) is off scoring morphine prescriptions from a dozen different doctors.

Actually, there's a lot more than this synopsis can hint at in this sprawling, three-hour-long tour de force. The connections between these characters aren't clear at first, but emerge slowly. More important to Anderson, however, is the overall crescendo he's building -- the characters are all different riffs on the same theme.

The musical metaphor is apt, for Anderson builds his film to the sweep of John Brion's orchestral score and Aimee Mann's plaintive songs. The result is something close to a pop symphony, a seamless cross-breeding of song and story, music and imagery.

This combination gives us spine-chill moment No. 2, a point well into the film, where the many characters of "Magnolia" are off on their separate tangents, but all feeling equally down and out. As the camera moves from one to the next, an Aimee Mann song slowly rises on the soundtrack, and you realize that what she's singing is exactly what every one of those people is thinking at that moment. Magical.

"Magnolia," like "Boogie Nights" and "Hard Eight" before it, is a film about bottoming out, about everything catching up with you, about hitting the pavement hard. Illness, loneliness, self-hate, insecurity, addiction and pain all build to a point of hopelessness. And then, it breaks.

Enter magic moment No. 3, the film's climax, a twist so surprising, so nervy and so totally out of the blue. Take my advice: Stay away from friends who've seen this film. Better yet, be the first in line to see it.

In what is an almost laughably capricious act of God, Anderson allows everyone one last chance for redemption. Imagine that scene in "The Hudsucker Proxy" where Tim Robbins is plummeting off a skyscraper and the Coen Bros. decide to save him by stopping time, and you'll have some idea of the brashness of Anderson's move here.

Like with "Boogie Nights," Anderson takes us through a minefield of messed-up parent-child relationships, and the desperate need in people to heal the fractures therein. But again, he's too kind to let his characters suffer for long -- as he put it, he likes "the saddest, happiest end possible," and that's no lie. When Aimee Mann sings on the soundtrack: "It's not going to stop/so just give up," Anderson's motive becomes crystal clear: Through letting go, the possibility exists to move on.

Anderson's ambitious script does leave a few loose ends dangling, and certainly, at just over three hours, the film could have been trimmed a bit. Nevertheless, there's no arguing with what he left in -- it's all quality time, and the ensemble cast deserve every moment they get. The Golden Bear Award that "Magnolia" just picked up at the Berlin Film Festival testifies to that.

Cruise has also scored an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe Award for his performance here, and deservedly so: I never thought I'd be saying these words (and I'd better say them quick, before "Mission Unwatchable 2" opens this summer), but Cruise is great. He gets to display a flashy Jerry McGuire-esque sort of obnoxiousness for most of the film, gyrating his hips and giving pep talks on "how to fake like you are nice and caring." But the scene where this sexologist is caught in a very embarrassing lie by a TV interviewer is an amazing bit of acting: The suave ultra-confident demeanor slowly shifts, through shifty defensiveness into a stone-cold glowering silence.

Cruise's is only one of many superb performances: Jason Robards' bitter death-bed confession of betrayal is profoundly moving. "This f***ing life," he laments. "Life ain't short, it's long." John C. Reilly and Melora Walters are also walking the edge, as they work up the quiet desperation of two lonely people hoping for a first date to go well. Anderson gets more out of one tabletop kiss between them than most directors do in an entire film.

I'd want to throttle any other director who put a Supertramp song in the soundtrack, but Anderson not only makes it work, he makes this '70s pop seem like an absolute godsend, a light at the end of the tunnel. Compared to "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" reveals the same bold camerawork and irreverent wit, but the overall tone is a bit heavier and emotionally draining. If "Boogie Nights" was Anderson's "Sgt. Pepper's," flashy and hip, then this one's his "Eleanor Rigby," a sharp tug at the heart.

"Magnolia" opens tomorrow at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan and other theaters. For the director's comments on the film, see my Web page at www.root.or.jp/makyo

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