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Cock of the walk

Tom Cruise and Jason Robards liven up an enervating Magnolia.

Magnolia, the third film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, is a brilliant piece of garbage -- mesmerizing, but only because you can't believe someone has the temerity to put so much into so little. Three hours and eight minutes long, and all it has to say at the end is this: Your past always has a way of catching up with you, of betraying you, of condemning and, ultimately, ruining you. It says it a dozen different ways, through the mouths of a dozen different characters -- each one more pathetic than the next, each so tormented that he or she always speaks as though a nervous breakdown is just around the bend. That is, when they're not crying already -- sobbing hysterically, more often than not, their words either stuck in their throats or drenched in so many tears, they're nearly unintelligible. Anderson likely penned his epic script on Kleenex.

For a film about the deep scars of past actions, Magnolia is extraordinarily shallow -- pretty to look at (at least, more so than Anderson's MTV infomercials for girlfriend Fiona Apple), because beauty obscures a multitude of sins. That is Anderson's lot in life, to make exceptional films and bury them beneath so much errata and clutter, they become all but unwatchable junkyards. Bless the patient soul with the fortitude to sit through Anderson's movies in hope of extracting those astonishing 43 minutes from the rest of the scrap heap. Find someone who thought the final hour of Boogie Nights was worth suffering through, and you'll find someone waiting only for the long-discussed payoff -- a 13-inch rubber dick, dangling lifelessly from Mark Wahlberg's crotch. Anderson apparently thinks longer is better in every way.

Only Anderson would build a film around Tom Cruise, then inhume him deep beneath the rubble. Here, Cruise is nothing but a bit player, when, in truth, he is the star of this ensemble piece, overshadowing -- no, mowing down -- anyone who shares a scene with him. Finally, after so many years of wasting his star quality in films beneath or beyond him (Eyes Wide Shut, most recently and most notably), Cruise owns a movie -- and the director doesn't have sense enough to give it to him.

Anderson probably thinks John C. Reilly's lonely good cop, Los Angeles police officer Jim Kurring, is the film's moral center; after all, Kurring almost narrates the movie, speaking to himself as though he were narrating an episode of COPS. "As we move through this life, we should try to do good," Kurring says early on, offering one of dozens of fortune-cookie platitudes he and others have the chance to utter. (Other highlights: "The most useless thing in the world is that which is behind me" and "The past is not through with us.") Or perhaps Anderson thinks the movie belongs to Melora Walters, who plays Claudia Gator Wilson, the strung-out daughter of drunken, lecherous game-show host Jimmy Gator (played by Philip Baker Hall, one of many Anderson regulars to appear in Magnolia).

Or, or, or...the list goes on: William H. Macy as pathetic Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, a former game-show wunderkind dressed in Target's Duran Duran line; Jason Robards as the slowly dying Earl Partridge, drawing his final breaths from a machine; Julianne Moore as Earl's guilt-ridden trophy wife Linda; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Phil Parmer, Earl's nurse and the man charged with absolving the old man of his sins; and Jeremy Blackman as the game-show child prodigy who craves only a tiny bit of his old man's affections. "I want you to be nicer to me," the kid tells his father; pretty much sums it all up.

But through it all, only Tom Cruise stands out -- perhaps because he's the only actor given a chance to exist beyond Anderson's sophomoric script. He is absolutely riveting as Frank T.J. Mackey, an evangelist for the lonely and horny male -- and, yes, the long-lost son of one Earl Partridge (making Magnolia one more in a never-ending string of Cruise's Daddy Movies). Frank makes his entrance to the overwrought strains of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," and like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Frank attracts anyone caught in his orbit. As the founder of Seduce and Destroy, he preaches the gospel of the erection: "Respect the cock, and tame the cunt" is his motto, which he tells his hooting-and-hollering legions while stalking the stage, strapped in beneath a leather vest and sporting a belt-buckle watch. Standing in front of a banner that reads, "No pussy has nine lives," Cruise exudes such confidence and such misogyny -- the man is a walking hard-on in search of someone to fuck, or fuck over. "I'm an action hero," he says, and you believe him; the man's got a kung-fu grip.

 

Only when the film focuses on Frank does Magnolia have any life; Cruise sizzles as though lit from within by a thousand Fourth of July fireworks displays. He can barely stand still, even when sitting for an interview with a television reporter trying to discover what makes this time bomb tick. Cruise performs for this woman, this audience of one, as he does for an auditorium full of screaming fratboys; before the interview begins, he strips down to nothing but a pair of tight white Jockeys, prancing and preening like a prizefighter waiting for the bell. You can smell the sweat on him -- the stench of confidence commingling with hormones, rage, and perhaps even the fear of being discovered as the ultimate fraud. Too bad, then, Anderson sells out his actor with a gimmicky ending and a crocodile-tear-stained monologue at his father's deathbed.

Anderson surely has used the films of Robert Altman as his template, none more so than the director's 1993 opus Short Cuts, yet another set-in-Los-Angeles ensemble piece that attempts to weave together the lives of a dozen characters into a whole. Altman, using the short stories of Raymond Carver as his own guide, was no more successful than Anderson -- nothing cries "Help!" more than a rock-slide-inducing earthquake as your what-now? finale. Anderson does him one better, tying together his characters and ending his film with a Biblical plague that enervates whatever emotion Magnolia builds toward. Anderson's is a jokey resolution, a film-school punch line whose payoff evokes God-almighty chuckles; it's an ambitious exclamation point, yes, but just because something is daring doesn't make it relevant or even very interesting. The same can be said for the moment when the film's characters all sing along with Aimee Mann's "Wise Up"; it's a daring moment only because it reminds us we're watching a movie, because it takes us out of the moment and lands us on VH1.

The same goes for Anderson's opening: He begins the film with three vignettes, featuring a voice-over by magician Ricky Jay. The point of these scenes -- one of which involves a suicide that becomes a homicide once a roof-jumper passes an open window through which flies a shotgun blast -- is that life is full of coincidences, that we are all subject to the whims of the fates. For his next film, perhaps, Anderson will show us a man filling out his tax return before he dies; there's nothing so irritating as the dogmatic filmmaker who believes he's offering us revelation and epiphany, when in truth he reveals only cliché and platitude. At least Altman's Short Cuts never strove for such moral high ground, not when it's far more fun to root around in the trailer park with Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin.

A colleague insists that Anderson directs his actors as though they're always about to break into song -- meaning, they're all so high-pitched, so close to the breaking point. Certainly, that could be said of Julianne Moore, who spends the entire film bouncing from doctor's office to lawyer's office to pharmacist's counter, delivering hysterical, cracked-voice monologues. "I've sucked other men's cocks," she tells her attorney (played by Altman vet Michael Murphy, just so you get the point). She's so consumed by the guilt of fucking around on Earl, whom she married for money only to fall in love with him as he lies dying. But she can never quite get the words out; they hang there, choked in her throat. Moore's so over-the-top, she's King Kong standing at the top of the Empire State Building -- a parody of pain.

The rest of the cast gets lost beneath the platitudes: Macy, a man who normally wears his roles like a Prada suit, plays his fallen Boy Wonder in a constant tizzy; he's pathetic, yes, but he's also tiresome. Reilly, as the goody-goody cop who cries when he loses his gun but can't tell that his new crush is strung out on coke, is equally annoying; you just want him to find his mommy...or eat his revolver. And Hoffman, usually among the most normal of creeps, gets relegated to the scenery here; he's the caretaker, surrounded by Earl's death and Earl's dogs, who exists only to advance the plot, to find Frank and make everything all right. He plays the part as though reading from cue cards: "This is the scene in the movie where the guy looks for the long-lost son," he tells Frank's assistant, and he delivers the line with the wink-wink of someone who exists outside the movie. It's not his fault, though; Anderson gives him nothing to work with -- nothing, save the filmmaker's own gee-whiz script.

Robards, as an old man eaten up with regret, makes the most of the material -- transcending it by doing absolutely nothing. You can smell the death that surrounds him; you can feel the pain deep within his decaying bones. Like everyone else in the film, Earl is self-destructing, collapsing in on himself as he wallows in his pain and self-pity. But his words carry weight enough to crush those who cross his path; his is a death without dignity, and Robards exhales his final breaths as though each one is strangling him. Too bad, then, that Anderson ruins his one scene with Cruise; their confrontation is so mawkish, it's like something from a Hallmark Hall of Fame special.

 

Anderson makes films as though each is his last, packing in everything when far less would suffice; it's as if he's too afraid to wrap things up, convinced he must say everything when, in fact, a few silences would suffice. Entire plot lines could easily have been deleted from Magnolia, and a far better, far more coherent film would have been the result. As it stands now, Anderson has made half a film, then multiplied it by zero.


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