Given that the cast includes previous Anderson stars William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman side by side with Tom Cruise and Jason Robards, it seems safe to assume that Paul (or is it P.T.? -- the ending and opening credits aren't in synch regarding his billing) got the cast he wanted. When a recent Entertainment Weekly article quoted him boasting about how Magnolia's script ignores the traditional three-act structure, it seemed the gauntlet had been thrown down: Love it or hate it, this movie was going to be 100 percent pure Anderson. And to pull off a movie of this type, he was either going to prove himself a genius or make himself look incredibly foolish, possibly causing New Line to reconsider giving final cut to anyone ever again.
Now it's here, and Magnolia certainly feels like a work of art, that is, provided you've never seen a little movie titled Short Cuts, from which virtually all of Magnolia's strengths are derived. Admittedly, writer-director Robert Altman himself wasn't being entirely original; his screenplay for that movie was based upon the short stories of Raymond Carver. Still, Altman's method of interweaving the individual substories while tangentially connecting each group of characters to the next was all his own (established previously with Nashville) and set the standard by which any films of this type, few though they may be, are to be judged.
Anderson's homage (to put it politely) doesn't stop with his borrowing Altman's structural innovation, general setting (suburban L.A.) or actress Julianne Moore, who's in both films. Where Altman focused on couples that were falling apart for various reasons, only to (mostly) reconcile at the end, Anderson focuses on individuals who are falling apart because of years of pretense and self-deceit, only to have them generally figure things out by the end. The event that triggers the catharsis in both cases is strikingly similar: Altman had an earthquake unify his characters and generally wrap things up; Anderson uses a more unusual act of God, one that has been foolishly revealed in numerous articles already but won't be spoiled here (although a bus-shelter ad reading, simply, Exodus 8:2 gives a strong hint to the Biblically knowledgeable).
That said, Short Cuts made even less money than Boogie Nights, and therefore has probably not been seen by at least half the people who are going to go to Magnolia. This vast majority should enjoy the film just fine. After a series of opening vignettes about incredibly coincidental deaths, framed as a series of mini-urban legends, a narrator implies that what we are about to see is going to be equally coincidental in nature (it's not, but maybe the point is to mislead). There follows a sweeping montage of TV images and rapid camera movements, giving us a quick overview of all the characters we're about to follow: Tom Cruise as a Ross Jeffries/Tony Robbins hybrid who advertises courses ("How to turn your best friend into a sperm receptacle") for insecure men; John C. Reilly as a clean-living Christian cop who hasn't had a date in years; Jason Robards as a dying TV mogul anxious to see his son, who may or may not be Tom Cruise, one last time; Moore as Robards' gold-digging, drug-addicted wife who only now realizes that she loves him; Philip Baker Hall as a veteran game-show host on Robards' network; Melora Walters as Hall's cocaine-addicted daughter whom Reilly falls for; Jeremy Blackman as the child prodigy excelling on Hall's show; William H. Macy as the former child prodigy star of the same show.
The fast camera moves continue for a while, just as most of the characters stay in motion so as not to reveal the truth about themselves too soon. As a series of different events starts to break down their individual pretenses, however, the camera settles down, and the takes become longer. Anderson's fascination with pornography is still very much in evidence: In addition to Cruise's borderline obscene affirmations ("Respect the cock and tame the cunt!"), a porn movie appears on TV that features the titular flower quite prominently, and many uncomfortable laughs are wrung from a scene in which Philip Seymour Hoffman orders nudie magazines from home-delivery grocery store Pink Dot, a company that no doubt will see its orders increase as a result of this placement. And like most of the characters in Boogie Nights, Magnolia's many personalities rise, fall hard, then pick up the pieces with varying degrees of success. A montage shows the different characters at their darkest hour, all in separate locations, singing along to an Aimee Mann tune about giving up. This scene is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition: either a masterstroke or hopelessly pretentious (how one reacts may depend on one's age).
Anderson is at his best, and his most different from Altman, in his moments of inspired surrealism. In addition to the climactic act of God, the game show that Hall's character hosts is impossibly pompous: Initial categories are Authors, Chaos vs. Superstring, and Rub-a-dub. Later features of the game include Hall reading a line from an opera, then challenging the competitors to give it back to him in the language it was written, with bonus points if they sing it in tune. Yet another category features a musical piece being played while Hall asks what aspect of a picnic said tune is most likely to represent. Meanwhile, Julianne Moore conducts a masterfully defensive, let's-cut-through-the-B.S. nervous breakdown scene simply by using different intonations of the phrase "Shut the fuck up!" Not to mention the scene where a dead dog is carried out on a hospital gurney.
In further reference to the aforementioned Exodus 8:2, the numbers eight and two have been carefully planted throughout the film, a strategy that may impress many but has been done before by Peter Greenaway in Drowning by Numbers. But why hassle Anderson over his knowledge of film history? Doesn't everyone borrow from what came before? Isn't his choice of influences generally good? Well, yeah. Enjoy his movies all you want. But let's not allow ourselves to be deluded into thinking they're groundbreaking or original.