Senior HTF Member
- Feb 12, 1998
- Real Name
- Michael Reuben
Studio: Warner (New Line)
Film Length: 188 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1; English DD 5.1 (compatibility track); Spanish DD 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 17, 1999
Blu-ray Release Date: Jan. 19, 2010
Magnolia has devoted fans, but it still prompts criticism even ten years after its release. Which is strange, because Magnolia didn’t do any of the usual things that cause a film to engender lingering resentment, like make buckets of cash or capture awards that some felt should have gone to a “worthier” contender. So why, after all this time, should the mere announcement of the Blu-ray prompt a replay of old complaints that the film is unappealing, pretentious and indecipherable?
Like the famous Big Event that concludes Magnolia, some mysteries apparently aren’t meant to be explained; so let’s leave that question hanging and talk about the (mostly) excellent Blu-ray from Warner.
Magnolia is a difficult film to summarize, because it’s more about interactions than events (except for a certain Big Event near the end). People have made much of the many Biblical references hidden within the film, but these are no more than an inside joke. (A lengthy list is at IMDb, for those who are interested.) It’s well-documented that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson wasn’t even aware of the specific text referenced throughout Magnolia (Exodus 8:2) until after the script was written and the film was in production. Besides, scripture doesn’t explain the story.
A more appropriate thematic talisman for Magnolia can be found in the three framing anecdotes narrated by magician and actor Ricky Jay (who has a small role in the film and whose book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women makes a cameo). Each story is a tale of remarkable coincidence, but the third has a special significance and gets the most detailed treatment. It involves the attempted suicide of one Sydney Barringer, who, distraught over his unhappy home life, jumped off the roof of his apartment building and plunged nine stories, only to have his fall broken by a window washer’s safety net that would have saved his life – except that he was killed by an accidental shotgun discharge as he passed the sixth floor. The shotgun was fired by Sydney’s mother during one of her frequent arguments with Sydney’s father, but Mrs. Barringer thought the gun was empty. It turns out Sydney himself had loaded it several days earlier, hoping that his parents would kill each other. Sydney dies, Mrs. Barringer is jailed, and the narrator dryly spends a few minutes examining and re-examining this bizarre tangle of circumstances in which the actions of parent and child have become so inextricably intertwined in creating injury and destruction that it is no longer possible to say with any degree of certainty just who caused what. However, as the narrator says, “These strange things happen all the time.”
The rest of Magnolia demonstrates the narrator’s point – minus the shotgun blast.
Though Magnolia is often described as a series of overlapping stories, it’s really just one story told in many parts. A major aspect of a first-time viewing of Magnolia is gradually discovering the connections among the characters as their stories unfold onscreen. If you’ve never seen the film before and read beyond this paragraph, you will have that experience spoiled. You have been warned.
The film is set during a single day in the San Fernando Valley. It revolves around the families of two men who became wealthy from a successful game show franchise called What Do Kids Know? Both men are now dying of cancer. The key characters are:
1. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), producer of the game show, who, on his deathbed, is wracked with guilt over his decision, years earlier, to desert his first wife and young son.
2. Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore), Earl’s second wife, who married him for his money, but then, to her own astonishment, found herself falling in love with Earl as she nursed him through his illness and now, at the end, is unhinged at the prospect of losing him.
3. Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), Earl’s son, who, after his father’s desertion, reinvented himself under a different name as a hugely successful self-help guru teaching men how to take control of their sexual destiny in testosterone-fueled seminars under the brand name “Seduce and Destroy”.
4. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), quizmaster and public face of What Do Kids Know?, a popular and even beloved figure in broadcasting, who is, in reality, a miserable sonuvabitch.
5. Rose Gator (Melinda Dillon), Jimmy’s long-suffering wife, who, at the outset of the film, is the only one other than his doctors who knows that Jimmy has only a few months to live. Ever the supportive spouse, she will spend much of the day urging Jimmy to come home and rest, until the moment when Rose can no longer continue fooling herself about what kind of man Jimmy really is.
6. Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters), the daughter of Jimmy and Rose, who has been estranged from her parents for years and lives a life that is spinning wildly out of control, complete with substance abuse and casual sex with men she’s just met. Claudia is the textbook case of someone who is trying to blot out both the world and herself.
7. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the current star of What Do Kids Know?, a whiz-kid with a prodigious memory who is supporting his struggling actor father with his winnings as he feels increasingly alienated from the normal kids around him.
8. “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), an earlier version of Stanley, who wowed TV audience back in the 1960s, then saw his parents take all his winnings. Today Donnie ekes out a meager living selling electronics for Solomon Solomon (Alfred Molina) and dreaming of a love affair with a handsome bartender he barely knows but for whom he plans to have his teeth straightened with expensive oral surgery. On this particular day, Donnie will get fired and pushed to the breaking point. He’s an object lesson in what happens to kids after the Gator/Partridge empire has used them up.
9. Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is Earl Partridge’s favorite nurse, now that Earl needs round-the-clock care. It is to Phil that Earl will ultimately confide his regret at abandoning his son, and it is Phil who will, on this eventful day, respond to Earl’s request to find his son, Frank Mackey, and persuade him to see Earl.
10. Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a Valley cop, who, more than anyone else in Magnolia, represents the voice of decency, hope and common sense. Officer Jim encounters Claudia when he responds to a noise complaint by one of her neighbors, and he is instantly smitten. At the end of the film, he is the voice of hope for both Claudia and the rest of us.
Tennessee Williams wrote of “trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.” He was speaking of his own work, but he could have been describing Magnolia. As the film cuts among this group of vivid and often intense personalities, whose connections are so twisted and interwoven that none of them could fully grasp the entire structure the way a viewer can, each gets emotionally cornered by circumstances that none of them could have foreseen when they got out of bed that morning – and souls get laid bare. The results aren’t always pretty, and it’s not everyone’s idea of entertainment, but Magnolia is in distinguished company. There is a well-established canon of America drama that delves into tortured family relations at the critical moment when death enters the picture and the past catches up. Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an obvious touchstone (and O’Neill was one of Anderson’s acknowledged inspirations), but so is Williams’ Cat on Hot Tin Roof, from which the above quote is taken. (It too took place in one day, involved an extended family, and featured a patriarch dying of cancer.)
But Magnolia isn’t all doom and gloom. Some of its best-known moments are also outrageously funny. Frank Mackey’s “Seduce and Destroy” seminars are so wildly over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh at Frank’s antics; Tom Cruise got an Oscar nomination for Mackey, probably because it’s the very opposite of the kind of “star” role that people expect from him. (When Mackey’s facade of bravado starts to crack during his interview with the reporter played by April Grace, it’s positively unnerving.) When Officer Jim faces off with a foul-mouthed suspect named Marcie, who does everything she can to prevent him from investigating a suspicious noise in her apartment (cursing, screaming, threatening, dragging the couch to which she’s handcuffed), only to proclaim after he’s found a body in her closet: “That ain’t mine!”, it’s outrageous and funny and you laugh even though some poor guy is dead on the floor. When Phil Parma is trying to track down Frank Mackey to fulfill Earl’s dying request and the only thing he can think of is to buy copies of the kind of magazine that might contain an ad for “Seduce and Destroy”, his negotiations with a grocery clerk about the specifics of his order are a treat. (“Do you still want the bread and peanut butter?”) And then there are the ongoing antics of Donnie Smith as he repeatedly makes a fool of himself in his quest for love. Played with the customary brilliance that William H. Macy brings to all his loser characters, Donnie’s scenes imbue sadness with humor in that special way of which only great clowns are capable.
(The humor in Magnolia can be subtle. It was only on the third viewing that I focused on the fact that Frank T.J. Mackey, macho man extraordinaire, has a female assistant, Janet, who, when she wants to get Frank on the phone with Phil Parma, raps out orders at a male subordinate like a puppy dog. Janet may collect a pay check from “Seduce and Destroy”, but she doesn’t sound like someone who could be either seduced or destroyed.)
Spoiler Alert: The Big Event that serves as Magnolia’s climax is, depending on one’s point of view, either a stroke of fantastical genius or an affront to the audience’s intelligence. Our tolerance for unexplained endings may be greater now after No Country for Old Men (and the Coens’ follow-up strange ending, A Serious Man), but Anderson’s choice to build his three-hour film to a rain of frogs that is never explained will always remain a risky one. Why not an earthquake (as Altman did in Short Cuts)? For narrative purposes, it would have accomplished all the same things.
Or would it? The last voice we hear in Magnolia is that of Officer Jim talking about difficult choices. “If you can forgive someone . . . well, that’s the tough part. (pause) What can we forgive?” Implicit in that last, fraught question is the understanding that not everything is subject to rational analysis, and that some of the most important decisions in life must be made on faith. Sometimes it takes a truly outlandish event to make people sit up and realize that not everything has to make sense. (And we movie audiences are a pretty jaded lot.) By ending Magnolia with a fantastical event, but one not unprecedented in nature (and, by the way, foreshadowed in the second of the three “framing” tales, that of the scuba diver scooped out of the lake and dropped into a tree by an aerial firefighter), Anderson was reminding both the characters and the viewers that strange things do happen all the time – that people forgive each other, recover from terrible harm, and move on with their lives. The final shot of the film is that of a character smiling, and it’s someone who hasn’t smiled once during the preceding three hours.
Warner has provided a superb transfer for Blu-ray that preserves the rich and lustrous appearance of Magnolia’s cinematography by Robert Elswit (who would later win an Oscar for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood). Black levels, detail and colors are all excellent. Some interior shots may appear too dark, especially if they’re silhouetted against an exterior light source, but this is how the film was shot. If there was any DNR applied, I couldn’t detect it. The film looks as thrillingly gorgeous as I remember it when I first sat entranced in a theater on Christmas Eve 1999.
One unfortunate side-note: Like the DVD, the disc has only 12 chapters. For a film with a 3:08 running time, that isn’t nearly enough.
As one would expect for a dialogue-heavy film, the TrueHD track is front-heavy, with most of the activity in the center channel except for the film’s famous score of Aimee Mann songs. Less famous but equally impressive is the instrumental score by Jon Brion, and that too is beautifully represented by the TrueHD track. The only time when the surrounds really come alive is during the Big Event conclusion, and then they are fully engaged.
One thing that even the TrueHD track could not do, and that was make the rap performed by Dixon (the boy encountered by Officer Jim on a call early in the film and who appears at several key points later on) any more intelligible than it has ever been. I know what it says, because I have the shooting script, but even so, I still can’t make out the words when I watch the film.
With one exception, all of the special features on the New Line “Platinum Edition” DVD issued in 2000 have been included on this Blu-ray edition. That exception is what caused me to refer to the Blu-ray as “mostly” excellent in the introduction.
The DVD included a sort of “easter egg” feature that the people who prepared the Blu-ray may not even have been aware of. Both the special features disc and the setup section of the main film contained a listing for “Color Bars” that did indeed display a color bar test pattern for a few seconds, but then played about eight minutes of bloopers and gags featuring Luis Guzmán, Tom Cruise, Mary Lynn Rajskub (who survived in the final edit only as a voice), John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall.
If this gag reel has been hidden anywhere on the Magnolia Blu-ray, I couldn’t find it. And believe me, I looked.
Magnolia Video Diary (1:12:43) (SD; 4:3 centered in a 16:9 frame). More spontaneous than a commentary, more intimate than a documentary, this “diary” follows Anderson, cast and crew through the making of Magnolia up to and including the movie’s less-than-successful release. It’s hugely entertaining with a lot of funny moments, many of them at Anderson’s expense. (William H. Macy is especially funny.) If Anderson were really as pretentious and egotistical as his detractors like to imagine, this is the kind of thing that would never have seen the light of day.
Frank T.J. Mackey Seminar (3:56) (2.40:1; SD, 16:9 widescreen). Essentially an extended scene, this picks up from a point in Frank Mackey’s “Seduce and Destroy” seminar, where, in the film, we cut away to another character. It features scenes with Mary Lynn Rajskub, who is also the voice of Frank’s assistant, Janet.
Seduce and Destroy Infomercial. (1:33) (SD; 4:3 centered in a 16:9 frame). This is the full version of the infomercial for Frank’s seminar that plays on TV near the beginning of the film.
Save Me Video (4:46) (SD). The video for Aimee Mann’s Oscar-nominated song that plays over the credits, featuring sets and characters from the film.
Trailers (SD, 16:9 widescreen). Both the teaser trailer and the theatrical trailer are included. Both contain footage shot specifically for trailers in which principal characters introduce themselves directly to the camera. The teaser trailer is noteworthy because it indicates that Dixon, the kid who raps for Officer Jim, was originally intended to play a larger role. (The shooting script confirms this.) I suspect that, during the editing process, it became clear that Dixon’s story took the film too far off its dramatic center, which remains the Partridge and Gator families.
TV Spots. There are nine, each reflecting a different marketing focus.
After Magnolia, people started comparing Anderson to Robert Altman, sometimes favorably, sometimes not so much. I might agree with the comparison, except that I’d probably mean something different by it. Having grown up with Altman’s films, to me he’s someone who never made anything formulaic and never did the same thing twice. M.A.S.H. wasn’t anything like Brewster McCloud or McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Nashville or California Split or Streamers or Popeye or The Player or Cookie’s Fortune – and none of them was like Three Women (because not much is). The defining quality of an Altman film was that you never knew what you were going to get.
Anderson has made five films to date, and they’re all different. I’d call Magnolia his family drama. For all its cinematic panache – the long tracking shots, the sharp push-ins, the masterful cross-cutting among narrative lines – the film shares its core elements with a venerable tradition of dramatic work portraying people and families discovering themselves at moments of personal crisis. It’s a film I can’t start without watching it to the end, especially now that it’s on Blu-ray.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub