Magnolia is a masterpiece of structure. Some parts are imperfect, some of the seams are badly stitched, but the finished piece is a work of art.
Magnolia is ambitious. Ten characters share center stage, and some of them never meet. But by carefully following the chain, you can get from one to the next. Anderson’s great script and Dylan Tichenor’s editing gives each character the right amount of time. The ensemble acting is superb.
One story is Frank T.J. Mackey’s. Mackey (Tom Cruise) runs seminars for men called “Seduce and Destroy.” He teaches men how to take what they want from women. He’s a real jerk and Cruise gives him believable dimension. During the seminar’s lunch break he gives an interview to Gwenovier (April Grace), who catches him off guard by asking penetrating questions about the “real” Frank Mackey. He returns to the afternoon session worked up by his frustrating interview.
Another story is Jim Kurring’s. Kurring (James C. Reilly) is a lonely cop. He talks to himself in his patrol car with the flat philosophical patter you’d expect to hear on COPS. His day gets more interesting when he responds to a disturbance at Claudia’s (Melora Walters) apartment. At first sight, he decides he likes this girl, and she seems to like him too. As he tries to start the relationship, his nervous tension builds
Jimmy Gator is a quiz show host. Now cancer is forcing him to retire. A combination of alcohol and pain cause his last live performance to go very badly. Also the whiz-kid contestant (Jeremy Blackman) refuses to play the final round, stressing him even more.
Most of the other characters have similarly bad days. Halfway through, a title card appears that says “99% humidity.” In other words, something’s got to give, something has to burst.
Anderson keeps the pressure building throughout the movie. For one thing, the music on the soundtrack is relentless. There is never a moment of silence, there is always a song or music playing over the action.
Also, the editing keeps the film moving. The characters are introduced at a whirlwind pace, and except for a few long stops at Earl Partridge’s (Jason Robards’) house, the characters’ stories are intercut briskly.
There are a few basic problems with the movie that took me by surprise. For example, when Tom Cruise leans forward or backward in his key scene, the focus doesn’t follow him perfectly. In film school, that kind of carelessness would get your movie rejected.
Also, some of the mid-level editing seemed off, like the too-long scenes of Partridge and his nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), or like the too-intense showdown between Donnie (William H. Macy) and his boss (Alfred Molina).
And yet, none of these potential problems are critical. They give the movie a unique texture, like bubbles in blown glass. Somehow they were simply not important enough to worry about, either for Anderson or for his audience.
The artist’s technique isn’t quite polished enough for him to be a master craftsman, but it doesn’t matter because he has created a unique work of art.