If I were to begin this as a normal movie review, and then it went on and on for thousands of words, full of sometimes dazzling paragraphs that didn’t relate to each other, and if this review then somehow turned into a haiku written in German about squirrels, how would you respond to it? If you were feeling generous, you might allow that it’s fitfully interesting — after all, nobody’s ever attempted this before — but you also might point out there’s a good reason nobody’s done it before.

Something like that happens in (and to) Magnolia, another demonstrative epic by the madly ambitious Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights). For long stretches, even the long bad stretches, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt: Nobody could call Magnolia timid or ordinary. But the cumulative effect of three hours and ten minutes of disjointed emotions, random despair, and freak occurrences that get right in your face and dare you not to take them seriously … well, it’s exhausting, even punitive. Anderson wants to grab us and hold us, but that isn’t the same as involving us; he seems to prolong the scenes and shuffle the storylines simply because he can. Anderson loves the bullying control of being a movie director.

In Los Angeles, a variety of people move through their meaningless days, nursing old wounds, sinking into fits of self-loathing. In outline, Magnolia is a lot like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, in which flawed, hapless people were caught in the pitiless hands of fate — and of Altman. Anderson is more gentle; he gives his actors moments they can sink their teeth into. But they’re just moments — they play like exercises designed for an acting class, and they hardly make sense; they’re not organic to the movie, but then nothing else in the movie is, either.

The movie has many mystifying touches: many references to a Biblical passage prophesying the movie’s climax; free-floating Masonic imagery; a little black kid who delivers an obscure rap that supposedly solves the mystery of a dead man in a closet. There’s also a prologue telling us that strange things happen, and the climax has a comparable Ripley’s Believe It or Not tone; but what that has to do with the movie’s repeatedly stated theme (come to terms with the past; be kind to one another) is anyone’s guess.

Those who respond to Magnolia will have enough to discuss and dissect for months (and I wouldn’t dream of dismissing those who embrace the film; it’s a love-it-or-hate-it affair). A good deal of Anderson’s banquet is enjoyable, but there are too many dishes, too much for one sitting, and some of us may not feel like returning for seconds. For all of Magnolia‘s energy and virtuosity (whatever else you can say about him, Anderson is a dynamic director, even if his particular dynamism is borrowed from Scorsese as well as Altman), for all of its success at evoking a sense of simultaneity and the uncanny, we just don’t spend enough time with any given character to become involved in his or her story.

Anderson busily sets up many “literary” parallels. There are two dying old fathers, both of whom work or worked in television (Anderson’s own father, Ernie Anderson, was the Cleveland kid’s-TV horror-movie host Ghoulardi). One, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), is estranged from his son (Tom Cruise), a dynamic how-to-pick-up-women lecturer probably patterned on Ross Jeffries. The other, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), hosts a quiz show pitting kids against adults, and is hated by his daughter (Melora Walters in the film’s most touching performance), a cokehead who develops an uneasy bond with a good-hearted cop (John C. Reilly).

There is also a former quiz-show whiz kid, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), now a bitter nowhere man who apparently lost his smarts when hit by lightning (Anderson does love these sick jokes of God’s); a current whiz kid on Jimmy Gator’s show is browbeaten by his own father into winning, just like Donnie was. Why all this elaborate parent-child venom? As in Boogie Nights, Anderson lays on the vituperative scenes of conflict, the bathetic moments of reconciliation. By many recent press accounts, Anderson loved his dad (who, like the movie’s two dads, had cancer) but is estranged from his (still-living) mother; if he has issues with her, I wish he’d work them out somewhere other than in his films.

Writing about Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth play The Iceman Cometh, Pauline Kael noted that “banality in depth can let loose our common demons,” and Anderson may have been trying for that. But what he ends up with is banality at length — punishing length. Magnolia is like a season’s worth of soap-opera vignettes, acted vigorously by a sincere cast. Some of the actors don’t come off. The usually dependable Julianne Moore, as Earl’s viciously miserable young wife, knocks herself silly trying to do something real with her sketchy character; her meltdown scene in a pharmacy is among the worst-written monologues I’ve ever heard in a serious film.

The most painful part of Magnolia is that Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t a no-talent; you can’t dismiss him. He has a genuine gift for melancholy, and some of the pieces of Magnolia are first-rate. But this film and Boogie Nights keep veering between wildly contrasting moods: dynamic energy and sodden depression; exaltation and despair. And the stories he’s telling just don’t justify the workout he puts us through.

If Magnolia were shorter, it might make a fascinating folly; if it were longer — say, an eight-episode series for HBO — Anderson might at least have time to dig deeper into the characters, who remain representative ciphers expressing themselves in too-explicit speeches. At times the movie seems to tremble under the strain of trying not to crack apart, and at the end, the film completely loses it — it’s as if Anderson, desperate for a spectacular finish and an easy way out of his dozen plot threads, had opted for the most arrogantly nonsensical climax possible. Cue the frogs! Is Anderson insane? Or did his ambition just get the better of him? Magnolia is a mess, but it’s somehow encouraging: It takes a gifted director to make a movie this extravagantly foolish.

2009 addendum: Ten years later, this film continues to bother and haunt me, despite its flaws, or perhaps because of them. Certainly few American films in the intervening decade have approached this movie’s ambition and generosity of spirit. For that reason I am upgrading my rating on eFilmCritic to four out of five stars, because any film this uncanny and wounded and dazzlingly composed is by definition “worth a look.”

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