Tuesday, March 25, 2014



Madame Rose, my sensational publicist, called this morning. Margo Channing, witch that she is, has been bad mouthing me and my infomercial ventures to Variety again so it's time to mount a counterattack in earnest. I was all for calling a press conference to denounce that harpy publicly as a two-faced monster with no talent and a fixation on younger actresses. Rose thinks we should use a more subtle approach. She's going to call Eve Harrington's personal assistant (who goes to the same manicurist) and get some real dirt. Meanwhile, I sent an anonymous note to 'E' television's Mysteries and Scandals explaining exactly how Margo got the nickname 'Hoover' and which battleship crew was involved.

Feeling a bit better, I spent the rest of the morning going through a pile of potential scripts looking for a suitable new project. I decided against the stage musical version of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain because it's so hard to sing, cough, and act tubercular at the same time. I also set aside a new film adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , as I have no interest in donning a false beard for weeks on end. Even with vigorous applications of Lesterene brand cantaloupe and aloe skin toner, my chin would be raw. One project that does seem to have possibilities is a musical remake of the great film Airport '75 entitled Flying Down to Reno . I faxed Joseph, my manager, the treatment and asked him to get me on the short list for the part of the stewardess.

Work being done, I retired to the home theater where my head was full of intersecting stories. Albatrosses and airplanes and sanitaria and hack actresses all vying for space. Therefore, I decided to view a film with multiple plot lines and chanced upon Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia from several years ago. Mr. Anderson's first picture, Hard Eight was a critical success, but received little distribution. His second picture, Boogie Nights showed a level of sophistication and maturity that made him a young filmmaker to watch; expectations were high for Magnolia , his third as writer/director. The result was a success d'estime , winning awards and ending up on many 'ten best' lists, but a box-office dud.

Like Boogie Nights Magnolia is another ensemble piece, this time with multiple intersecting plots rather than a single through line. It stars what is coming to be the P.T. Anderson rep company of actors. William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, Ricky Jay, Thomas Jane, Luis Guzman and Alfred Molina all pop up again. We're in the San Fernando Valley once more; this time it's modern day and a group of disparate peoples' lives are all going to intertwine. A wealthy man (Jason Robards) is dying at home, cared for by a home nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His soon to be widow (Julianne Moore) is having a breakdown over her loss. The man's estranged son (Tom Cruise), is an infomercial huckster - a sort of Anthony Robbins who sells male chauvinist pig / Playboy channel ideals. He's trying to hide his past from a reporter (April Grace). Meanwhile, a cop (John C. Reilly) deals with domestic disturbances and meets a young woman (Melora Walters) for whom he falls. She has a bad drug problem that she uses to cope with memories of an unhappy home. Her father (Philip Baker Hall) is an Art Linklater type host of a kids TV quiz program who is a souse and a lecher and, when he finds out he's dying, decides to confess his sins to his wife (Melinda Dillon) making things worse rather than better. On his quiz show, a precocious moppet (Jeremy Blackman) tries to come to grips with his needs and his pushy father (Michael Bowen). An ex-contestant from the 60s (William H. Macy) who was briefly a celebrity, and now a has-been, is fired by his boss (Alfred Molina) and retreats into self-pity in the ugliest gay bar ever seen on screen. People intersect with each other without realizing or communicating and the movie goes on and on.

There is probably a good two-hour slice of life film hiding in here. Anderson has created interesting and compelling characters, hired good actors, given them free reign to work out relationships and knows how to choreograph a scene so we can keep track of multiple plot threads. Some of his sinuous dolly and steadicam shots switching from one group of actors to another are amazing. Unfortunately, Anderson the writer/director has not yet met Anderson the editor. Most scenes go on for far too long and ultimately, I felt like I was watching scene studies in a graduate acting workshop rather than a movie. To make things worse, Anderson brackets the film in the mystical. He begins with a prologue that discusses three remarkable and somewhat surreal coincidences - a metaphor for the divine and inexplicable. He then ends the film with an extended sequence, also divine and inexplicable with one of the Biblical plagues descending on Van Nuys.

I have no objections to magic realism in film, but it needs to be there for a purpose, to clarify themes or plots. Here, we have a very morose, naturalistic story interrupted by a deus ex machina without rhyme or reason and which does nothing to further the points toward which Anderson has been working. The themes set up in the body of the film are those of alienation and angst and the importance of human connections and forgiveness. The special effects laden finale does not lift the film up towards something greater, rather it gives the impression that Anderson had no clue how to end his film and just thought 'wouldn't it be cool if...'.

There are beautiful moments throughout the film and a couple of bravura touches that Anderson manages to pull off. Someone had the great good sense to hire Aimee Mann to produce songs for the score and her haunting melodies and lyrics of alienation lift the piece to a higher emotional place. At one point, many of the characters join her in singing 'Save Me' - a moment that shouldn't have worked, but does. Tom Cruise is great in a howlingly funny infomercial and seminar on his 'Seduce and Destroy' system for getting a piece.

There are no weak performances. As in Boogie Nights , Anderson gathers super talent and then gets out of their way. Tom Cruise, the big marquee name, plays against type as a super cad (and got an Oscar nomination for it). He fits neatly into the ensemble, being self-effacing enough not to overpower his fellow actors. His scenes with reporter April Grace are little masterpieces of balance. Of the rest of the large cast, the standouts are Melora Walters as the unhappy cokehead and Philip Baker Hall as the failing game show host. Everyone, however, has at least one moment, even the bit players.

The DVD is one of New Line's Platinum Series and is handsomely produced and boxed. It has Dolby 5.1 and a wide screen transfer. However, for a three-hour film, it only has a dozen or so chapters making finding a specific moment difficult. It also lacks a commentary track, and if there was ever a movie that could use one, this is it. I wanted to shout 'Why didn't you cut that?' 'What did you mean by this?' and other questions at the TV, and there's no way to answer them.

A second disc contains the extras, and they're pretty skimpy. There's one cut sequence of Tom Cruise at his seminar showing his techniques in action and the full film of the infomercial. There are the usual teasers and trailers. There's a music video of 'Save Me' with Aimee Mann singing on the film sets with the actors in character. The only really interesting bit is a 75-minute 'making of' video documentary that gives snippets of the whole film making process from early production meetings through the premiere. It reveals Anderson to be much less mature of an individual than his films would suggest. It also shows snippets of a filmed, but cut plot line, showing what happens to the cop's gun and more about the body in the closet and who killed him. While that part of the film feels truncated, I'm just as happy it wasn't a three and a half hour film.

Dog OD. Screeching black woman. Broken skylight. Multiple book bags. Gratuitous Henry Gibson. Ambulance crash. Public urination. Stuffed Cruise briefs. Gratuitous Felicity Huffman. Corrective cosmetic oral surgery references. Unrequited bartender lust. Habanera singing. Gratuitous Alfred Molina. Pharmacy refills.

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