Have you seen the film Magnolia? If you haven’t, BEWARE: this post will have spoilers.
If you have, to jog your memory, it’s the one where Tom Cruise plays an arrogant, misogynistic prick. Oh… hang on, that’s Top Gun; Rain Man; Cocktail; and All Tom Cruise Films…
Let me see. It’s the one where Julianne Moore plays a promiscuous drug-addled trophy wife. Oh, sorry, that doesn’t help either…
It’s the one where William H Macy plays a vulnerable middle-aged man who fumbles a criminal scam with mild-mannered incompetence…
Alright, alright! It’s the one where it rains frogs. There, that’s what everyone remembers isn’t it? The frogs!
I watched the movie last night… Actually, that’s not entirely true: I watched the movie last week, in shifts. The 188-minute running time has a touch of self-indulgence to it, and it was hard to sit through the whole thing in one stint.
I have some grievances with this film that I wanted to articulate, for my own benefit, and perhaps for anyone thinking about watching it. Those grievances are not about the acting performances (which are strong), nor the directing or cinematography. It’s the script that irks me, and one or two stylistic choices that really grate.
That’s not to say I think I can make a better film, and I applaud Paul Thomas Anderson for attempting something so ambitious, but I feel the story promised more than it was able to deliver.
Indeed, if the final cut had omitted the prologue and the “Strange things do happen” narrator, it might actually be a more palatable experience.
Stylistically, the two montages in the film really put me off: the first depicts all the characters singing the same song, Wise Up by Aimee Mann, in various dreary locales. But it succeeded only in rupturing my bond with the story’s reality – why are they all singing the same song? How do they all know the words? Is this movie a musical? Is Somewhere Over The Rainbow next? Why is this happening?!
It was annoying and jarred with the rest of the film.
But the other montage – if it can be referred to as such – replaces the music, played over shots of each main character, with the death-throe ramblings of an old man. It’s awkward, stunted and feels like a mistake in the sound studio. It’s not even particularly poignant ponderings – just a murky, unpunctuated paragraph of regret, spluttered behind panning shots of unrelated characters.
And they are unrelated characters, despite the director’s insistence they are not. And that is where, for me, the film really falls down.
The movie opens with three weirder-than-fiction stories that declare that life is full of coincidence and irony:
- The 17th-century hangings of Messrs Green, Berry and Hill, convicted of mugging a man who happened to live at the address Greenberry Hill;
- A man who attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the roof of his building but is accidentally shot by his own mother as he hurtled past the window;
- And a scuba diver, accidentally lifted out of the water by a fire-fighting aeroplane and deposited in a tree near a forest fire, by a pilot coincidentally aggrieved by the diver’s dealing at his vocation as a croupier.
It’s a lovely setup that says:
“Weird shit happens, with strange coincidences and inherent irony. What you are about to witness is an even more bizarre and wonderful tale depicting our human obsession with those very forces: coincidence and irony.”
But, unfortunately, that’s not what it delivers.
We’re supposed to be wowed by the story’s interwoven narrative, and impressed by how the characters interact with each other at random. But, ultimately, the coincidence in this film boils down to People meet.
There’s no real irony to the tale, other than The people we’re following accidentally bump into each other.
Take William H Macy’s role as washed up Quiz Kid Donnie Smith. He has no relationship with any of the other characters, aside from being an older version of the child-genius we see on the gameshow What Do Kids Know? That is, until a policeman we’re also following finds him by chance breaking into a building.
The modern child-genius, little Stanley Spector, has no connections either, apart from being on the gameshow with another character we follow, the show’s host. They share no underlying relationship; they are just people that share the same space at a particular time.
The coincidence is nothing more than the film’s decision to follow them.
There is no remarkable happenstance that effortlessly binds these characters; no event that makes us go: “Huh, that was weird.” There’s just a plague of frogs.
Grumpy old toad
I like the frogs, don’t get me wrong. But they didn’t add much to the story – aside from being the only interesting thing that happens, which I suppose is a contradiction. The problem is, it’s unrelated to the story as a whole, and has no affect on the plot or character arcs – and yet it forms the climax of the story. It is the bizarreness the film portends in its prologue.
Filling the film with references to the numbers 8 and 2 to relate to Exodus 8:2 (“But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs”) may be a fun Easter Egg (and potential drinking game), but it doesn’t drive plot or character. It’s an afterthought disguised as literary craft.
And when I said the film is self-indulgently long, consider the fact its running time (188 minutes) is almost exactly Pi – 3.14159 hours. That’s the kind of detail that makes you think – wow!
But then, it’s also an entirely obscured detail, hidden from any audience member without a stopwatch. All it achieves is to lengthen the film to a tiresome degree. At some point the editor must have been making decisions to arbitrarily lengthen or shorten the film solely to reach this abstract and obfuscated length of time.
When the film finally does end – abruptly and with many questions unanswered – we’re supposed to think:
“Yup, that’s how life is. It’s not neat, or pretty, or fulfilling; it’s weird, and pointless, and ultimately unsatisfying.”
But that’s life. I don’t go to the cinema or pick up a book to experience life. We find coincidences and irony and strange occurrences entertaining; but we also like resolution. We tell stories with a beginning, a middle and an end because that’s what makes them satisfying, or cathartic.
Some people rave about the film, because it doesn’t have these things: it ends abruptly, with no storyline reconciled or character having changed. It does everything fiction writers tell us not to do. It’s clever, you see, in its mould-breaking depiction of uncanny reality.
You just don’t get it. You’re not clever enough to get it.
On the contrary… I did get it. I just didn’t enjoy it.