Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most talented and most frustrating of the artists to emerge from the mid-90’s boom of next-generation film school brats. Though his first film was shuffled and recut, his sophomore effort was launched like the second coming. That film is Boogie Nights (1997), which – without setting the world on fire – became something of a cult hit, doing well enough to launch Anderson as a serious director. His follow up – 1999’s Magnolia – was viewed less favorably, though it too had its staunch defenders. With his cadre of returning players (Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Phillip Baker Hall, Ricky Jay, and William H. Macy), and stars like Tom Cruise, and Mark Wahlberg, Anderson was both one of the most successful (critically) and least successful (fiscally) of the new auteurs. My reviews of Boogie Nights and Magnolia after jump.
It’s easy to see why Anderson became a cause celeb with Boogie Nights. From a technical standpoint, his understanding of cinema is excellent, and he knew how to use the widescreen frame to his advantage. Using long takes, and the steadicam, there’s a great life and some originality to his visual sense (though one of the film’s most famous shot’s is cribbed directly from I Am Cuba – but what a movie to steal from). He knows music, uses it well, and showed to the world Mark Wahlberg could not only be a star, but an actor. Wahlberg plays Eddie Adams, a young kid with a huge cock. He meets Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), and his crew. They all make pornography, and with Adams’s huge schlong, he’s a natural.
This motley family includes little Bill (Macy), Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) Amber Waves (Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Kurt Longjohn (Ricky Jay) and sound guy Scotty J. (Hoffman). Once Adams joins the family he changes his name to Dirk Diggler. From there the film charts his rise and fall as success goes to his head, as does all the cocaine he snorts.
I’ve always had a certain reticence with this film because it plays like a collection of covers. There’s a lot of Altman in there, a lot of Scorsese, and a number of the other major filmmakers of the 70’s – but those two especially. It’s an interesting mix as Altman always had a more lackadaisical-seeming marijuana approach, while Scorsese tends more towards amped-up cocaine style, and the two mix well here, but where both those directors were after a certain truth, Anderson isn’t really interested in the reality of the 70’s, of porn life, or anything like that. He’s after creating his image of that era in his head. And he gets that Valley vibe and those people mostly right, but as much as he lets the actors have space to improv I don’t sense that much inner life because this is a fantasy play. On that level they are fun cartoons, but the film really comes to life in one of the final scenes when Diggler has bottomed out, and Anderson comes close to recreating the Wonderland murders. Alfred Molina plays a drugged out dealer who has a Chinese boy staying with him throwing firecrackers, while Digler and his gang (Reilly and Thomas Jane) are trying to sell fake coke for money. After having felt the film outstayed its welcome, this sequence instantly re-engaged me, but then I was equally put out by the film ending with a quote of Raging Bull.
But on this viewing, if one sees this as Anderson making his over-indulgent movie-move, then it’s easier to forgive his ample quotations. That he manages to make the film an entertaining cover album is the fun of it, and if you take this as just someone getting off on the power of cinema, and staging sequences, and doing porn parodies, and all that, it’s great. But my problem has always been that the film has nothing to say, so much as it’s a chance to play dress up in front and behind the camera, and revel in period.
New Line’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in English 5.1 TrueHD. The picture quality is excellent, and an improvement over the previous DVD release. Also, the two commentaries from the previous releases are included, the solo Anderson commentary and the Anderson and cast members John C. Reilly, Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Heather Graham. The cast commentary is insane, and most people are not entirely sober, and talk about some crazy stuff. “The John C. Reilly File” (15 min.) offers three scenes where Reilly goes crazy with improv to great results, while there’s also ten deleted scenes with optional Anderson commentary (29 min.). There’s a music video by Mark Penn for the song “Try” that was directed by Anderson with cameos by Hoffman and Melora Walters (also with commentary) along with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Magnolia is a meant to be Anderson’s epic story of humans, but it never achieves its goal, and feels long and indulgent. But where Boogie Nights has that movie energy, and there’s some of that in Magnolia, it also wants to be taken a lot more seriously. As such, when it goes a bit tone deaf, it flounders, and then it just keeps going. Altman could do it with more characters and with a film like Short Cuts, but Anderson didn’t have what he needed to make the film a success. Again, the man has a great gift, but the rhythm is off.
It opens brilliantly with a short film that essays how chance and random incident somehow can create a great convergence that may be intentional. The film sets up the idea that random isn’t always as random as it seems. This idea thematically is interesting, but it also doesn’t totally connect to everything that’s happening in the film in a meaningful way. It’s also a film about sickness and death, as it’s got two characters (played by Phillip Baker Hall and Jason Robards) that are dying, and both play not entirely nice father figures. Robards plays Earl Partridge, who’s literally in his deathbed, and his hospice worker Phil Parma (Hoffman) is asked to find Earl’s long lost son Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise). Earl’s younger trophy wife Linda Partridge (Moore) is around but she feels guilty that their marriage started as a sham and wants out of the will because she now loves him.
Phillip Baker Hall’s Jimmy Gator has a coked out daughter in Claudia (Melora Walters), who is trying to find her bottom and hasn’t gotten there yet. She meets Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who asks her out on a date. Jimmy hosts a TV show called “What do Kids Know” where quiz kid Donnie Smith (Macy) once achieved fame, but has recently been fired, and is hanging out at a gay bar, making eyes at the bartender who seems in the thralls of “Thurston Howell” (Henry Gibson). On the show is the new hot quiz kid Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), who has an emotion breakdown when they won’t let him go pee.
This all leads to the rain of frogs.
There are a number of good things in the film, but it’s stuffed to the gills with ideas that don’t go anywhere, and is obviously a film by someone working through their own emotional baggage about death and grief. And that’s valid and cinematic, but the conception of fate doesn’t have the energy of a film that is about character. In that you can feel the hand of the director throughout, and all the moments like the frogs feel like someone arranging things. It’s an artist trying to present the randomness of life and the unintentional design by intentionally designing things. The film works when it allows itself to be a raw nerve, or a sweet love story, but it’s a big talented mess because it can’t let go like Altman could with Short Cuts, the obvious parental figure. That film is also really messy and had terrible moments, but those moments were much more honest. This film feels like it;s convinced it’s a victory lap.
The Blu-ray is in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD. Excellence. The film comes with all the DVD supplements, including the Magnolia video diary (72 min.), the uncut Frank TJ Mackey Seminar (4 min.), the “Seduce and Destroy Infomercial” (2 min.), a music video for Amiee Mann’s “Save Me,” two trailers and nine TV spots.