Copyright 2000 Telegraph Group Limited  

March 17, 2000, Friday


LENGTH: 1114 words

HEADLINE: The Arts: Suffering in suburbia In an extraordinary week of major releases with 10 Oscar nominations between them, David Gritten (below) finds Magnolia flawed but fascinating, while Andrew O'Hagan (opposite) enjoys a surreal comedy and a tender adaptation

BYLINE: By David Gritten

THE phrase "curate's egg" might have been coined for Magnolia, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to his estimable Boogie Nights. Over-long, flawed and often exasperating, it's also a hugely ambitious, virtuoso work and the most emotionally captivating film of this past year.

Its title is unrelated to blossom. Magnolia Boulevard is an east-west street stretching for miles across the San Fernando Valley, a hotbed of lower middle-class aspiration separated by mountains from the real power centres of Los Angeles: districts such as Bel Air and Beverly Hills.

In the 1980s I lived in four homes, all within a few blocks of Magnolia. In the Valley, everyone either works in showbiz, or feels connected to it - be they postmen or supermarket check-out girls. Greed and hustle hang heavy in the air. Here everything is a commodity that can advance one's station in life, even your children (when my son was nine years old, six of the 21 kids in his school class had agents).

Anderson grew up in the Valley and knows that unhappy self-absorption flourishes in such an ethos. Magnolia surveys a large group of loosely linked people who, though urgently seeking human connection and moral purpose, live in quiet despair. There's Earl, a dying television mogul (Jason Robards); his young wife (Julianne Moore), belatedly realising that she loves him; his kindly male nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman); and Earl's estranged son (Tom Cruise), a foul-mouthed, leather-clad sex guru with his own misogynistic self-help TV show that advises men on how best to seduce women. Then there's Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a veteran TV quiz show host; his alienated daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) flails in a quicksand of cocaine-fuelled self-hatred; and John C Reilly, a sweet-natured, bumbling cop who falls for her during a routine house call. William H Macy plays Donnie, a former TV quiz child star struggling to hold down a job; Jeremy Blackman is a child genius who goes on Jimmy's quiz show only under pressure from his pushy dad.

In a remarkable first 10 minutes of exposition, Anderson's camera swoops, dives and careens giddily, establishing connections between these people. (Deeper, unexpected connections emerge later.) Along with this frenzied activity, Aimee Mann sings Harry Nilsson's song One Is the Loneliest Number, a title that tips us off to Anderson's thesis.

Mann's contribution to Magnolia cannot be under-estimated. She has supplied seven superlative songs with lyrics of longing and self-doubt and Anderson uses them as a starting-point for scenes between his characters. What unites these people is torment: living lives out of balance, regretting past errors, they crave a fresh start. In this sense, Magnolia has a truly millennial air.

Watching this group fall apart, break down and slouch separately towards self-knowledge is appallingly entertaining. Cruise struts on stage with shoulder-length hair, hips pumping, spewing salacious advice to his disciples, pathetic losers all. (He's a revelation - I'd swap his 20 minutes screentime in Magnolia for all his film work in the past decade.) Moore has a memorable fit of rage at a pharmacy, and Macy admits to perplexed drinkers in a bar that his life is a void.

These are terrific setpieces, performed by the best ensemble of actors currently working in film - many of them (Macy, Moore, Baker, Hoffman, Reilly) held over from Boogie Nights. But irritations abound. Anderson cranks up Jon Brion's score so loud that it often obscures dialogue. He bookends the film with a deadpan but dispensable account of two unlikely murders and a freak mishap, all unrelated to the main story. And the film's main thrust is pedestrian and old-fashioned: the damaging emotional legacy parents can leave children, the need to confront one's past openly and truthfully. Isn't this old Arthur Miller territory?

It's also a rare scene in Magnolia that couldn't be shorter. One deathbed soliloquy by Robards is so long that it's virtually surreal. This is only the third film by Anderson; one senses that he feels too much awe for his actors to rein them in and edit them. With his prodigious talents, he could assert more authority and remember that actors must serve a story.

Yet Magnolia has moments of breathtaking audacity. At one point, all its characters separately become aware of a need to lay their past to rest and change their lives. The sequence starts with Moore sitting mournfully in a car, lip-synching to Aimee Mann's song Wise Up: "You've got what you want / You can hardly stand it, though / But now you know / It's not going to stop / Till you wise up". Then Anderson cuts to the rest of the cast, one by one, also singing along. Initially, the device seems embarrassing, but quickly the sheer cathartic power of the moment is revealed. It is one of the most emotionally direct scenes I have ever seen in a film.

But Anderson isn't finished yet, and climaxes Magnolia with nothing less than a biblical plague. I won't betray the details, though students of the Book of Exodus, which is referred to throughout, will see it coming. Again, this is audacity on a grand scale.

Finally Magnolia is a plea for kindness - especially between parents and children. It appeals to the emotional heart rather than the logical brain, but there's true greatness here - it's a rare movie, about which one can feel true passion. I could make a long list of its faults, but I can't get it out of my head.

PRECISELY the opposite is true of Ordinary Decent Criminal. Minutes after its ending, one struggles to recall more than a few scenes. Audiences drawn by the luminous presence of Kevin Spacey will feel let down. Few actors can transcend the material offered them, and Spacey, still basking in the glow of American Beauty, flounders in this barely veiled account of Dublin gangster Martin Cahill's life and misdeeds.

Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan, hampered by a script of wildly uncertain tone, stages bank robberies and an art theft as capers, vainly aiming for a comic touch. Spacey looks generally out of sorts and miscast. His character (Cahill, but renamed Lynch here) has unclear motives. Talented supporting actors are handed thinly written parts: smouldering Linda Fiorentino as his wife; Peter Mullan, his sidekick; and Stephen Dillane as his main rival, the one policeman portrayed with a three-digit IQ.

"It wasn't for the money, it was for the craic," says Lynch/Cahill at one point, a queasy, hollow-sounding line. Still, this was clearly one mythomaniac hoodlum, and this is the third recent film about him. All the more reason to deny his legend the oxygen of further publicity.