What Makes A Classic: Magnolia

“Things fall down, people look up, and when it rains, it pours”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film is unashamed in working with a wide canvas and tragic, overwhelming emotions. Weaving several interconnected storylines over three hours, it follows disparate residents of LA’s San Fernando Valley over a single night as they stumble towards catharsis. The large ensemble cast is superb – even Tom Cruise is scarily effective as a misogynistic seduction guru – and Anderson pitches perfectly the resulting complex web of relationships. Particularly well-executed is the awkward, touching courtship between a warm-hearted cop (John C Reilly) and a fragile, drug-addled young woman (Melora Walters), eventually flashing brightly in what must be one of cinema’s best kisses. Magnolia is a film with full of all kinds of sadness but the balance struck with a quiet joy and even a vein of offbeat humour stops the pathos from overwhelming.

It is not merely the story and characterizations which make Magnolia so memorable. Its production is pulled off with often breathtaking flair, and Anderson has the ability – impressive in such a long, sprawling film – to hone in on realistic details which become visually striking as a result. The dynamic editing helps here, as does Robert Elswit’s beautiful, fluid cinematography: he and Anderson use the camera to veer, peer, swoop and zoom onto whatever catches their eye in propelling each scene forward. Jon Brion’s rich yet subtle orchestral score and several songs by Aimee Mann all play key roles too, yet Anderson is careful not to overuse even features as strong as these – the moving emotional centre of the film is intensely quiet, culminating in a long meditation on regret by Robards on his deathbed.

Less well received than either of Anderson’s breakthrough projects, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Magnolia may reside in the popular consciousness as ‘that film with the raining frogs’, but so far through its running-time is that plot device introduced, and so successfully has Anderson built up the action, that it comes across as more of a revelation than a gimmick; most revealingly, it is its impact on the characters which is so compelling. This is fitting for such a grand, artful but ultimately very human film, concerned as it is with what binds people together despite their flaws; be it their regrets, their pasts or simply their love.

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