Magnolia – 2 stars

Magnolia. Clocking in at 3 hours and 11 minutes, the first half of Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights is ambitious, engaging, and risky. Sadly, the remainder of the film is self-indulgent, infantile, maddening, and, ultimately, an assault.

Basically a pastiche of several intersecting stories in Los Angeles, Magnolia recounts a day in the lives of earnest galoot cop John C. Reilly, woman-hating television Svengali Tom Cruise, cancer-ridden game show icon Philip Baker Hall, his wife Melinda Dillon, his daughter Melora Walters, cancer-ridden and dying television magnate Jason Robards, his mentally ill wife Julianne Moore, Robard’s nurse Philip Seymour Hoffman, game show child wunderkind Jeremy Blackmon, his father Michael Bowen, and former game show child wunderkind William H. Macy.

The first problem is structural. Anderson has chosen a story with countless characters who are at the point of a knife in their lives. Drug abuse, fear of dying, dying itself, mental illness, abandonment . . . these are but a few of the issues confronting these characters. As such, scene after scene of high-pitched melodrama makes for a trying time.

The first problem leads to the second: overacting. Because the script is in many ways a collection of speeches at emotional high points, the actors tend to dispense with any hint of subtlety (save Hoffman and Hall, who are notable for their restraint), opting to instead screech at the screen. Cruise (who was nominated and was infinitely better in the clunky Eyes Wide Shut), Moore, Walters, and disappointingly, Macy, are the prime offenders. Cruise’s deathbed scene with Robards is damn near unbearable, as is Macy’s “I have love to give” barroom soliloquy.

The third problem is visual. Anderson is clearly comfortable with the camera, and he refuses to see movement as reserved for action and/or exclamation. His world is both fluid and frenetic, and the style has its merits. But very rarely does he simply stop. No shot is so mundane that it cannot be a dolley-shot or a snakelike track. In the end, it is too much.

Finally, Anderson makes two truly awful choices in the second half of the film. First, he besmirches one of the nice things about his film (Aimee Mann’s songs – like those of Elliot Smith in Good Will Hunting, she has produced several simple, literate and haunting tunes that match the mood of the film) by having his characters actually sing some of the lines to one of her ditties. The effect is awkward. I laughed. Literally, we have Jason Robards on death’s door, singing along with Aimee Mann.

The second is unbelievable and just flat out bizarre: frogs fall out of the sky. Not figuratively, but literally. Big, fat, gloppy frogs.

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