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Moore Is Less: Julianne Moore gives one of her least effective performances as a trophy wife with a dying husband in 'Magnolia.'

Flower Power

Paul Thomas Anderson forgets how to boogie in long, sporadic 'Magnolia'

By Richard von Busack

THE NEW FILM Magnolia is named for an almost 15-mile-long street that runs from Burbank to Van Nuys. Never quite suburb and never quite city, Magnolia Boulevard is rambling, seemingly endless. This three-hour movie is a credit to its namesake.

Some of the awe-struck reaction to Magnolia has to be due to its length--and for the way director/writer Paul Anderson shuttles back and forth between several suffering families. (Families that seem a little prosperous for a working-class drive like Magnolia Boulevard, but let it pass.) The film is about errant, unfaithful fathers and the damage they do to their children. Magnolia includes two failed fathers; a third well on the way to losing his son's love; and a fourth, unseen father who stole his child's hard-earned fortune.

Anderson--billing himself as "P.T. Anderson" (in homage to Barnum?)--has already made an epic, Boogie Nights. That film cheered audiences because it celebrated a time of great sexual freedom and social mobility. And after seeing Magnolia, I wondered why he hadn't just made a sequel to Boogie Nights.

Since Anderson had previously created characters whose charm was in their casual bed-hopping, why didn't he show how his Boogie Nights cast hit the '80s and '90s, with age, AIDS and crack cocaine catching up with them? Anderson could have followed the children of Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) as they coped with their wayward mother. He could have brought out the dark side of the paternal filmmaker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds).

But Magnolia consists of a scad of sinning characters in search of a plot. By naming their exact relations to each other, I'd be giving away as much surprise as the film offers.

THE PROLOGUE--narrated by magician and author Ricky Jay--retells three stories, one a true tale, two that are urban legends, that prove the hand of coincidence. The prologue reminds us that the different stories we are about to see are all connected.

Anderson assembles the cast: a trophy wife (Moore), whose husband (Jason Robards) is about to die of lung cancer as he's nursed by a selfless home-care nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Also, we have Frank (Tom Cruise), a professional dickwielder who runs "Seduce and Destroy" seminars on how to tame women. Across town, a policeman (John C. Reilly, Mark Wahlberg's lunkhead buddy from Boogie Nights) befriends a drug addict (Melora Walters).

We also meet the addict's mother, Rose (Melinda Dillon, one of the best actresses of the '70s, given far too tiny a role). Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is an elderly TV celebrity, the host of a long-running quiz-kid show. Two of Gator's guests are also the subject of Magnolia: today's boy genius (Jeremy Blackman), and yesterday's has-been star, an older, lonely, unsuccessful man (William H. Macy) who was a guest on the same program more than 30 years ago.

Is Magnolia trying to reveal that TV hosts aren't nice in real life, despite how obsequious they are in front of the cameras? Could be. Anderson is the son of a noted TV personality, the pioneering horror host Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson, who left his base in Cleveland and came to L.A. to do voice-overs for NBC.

But there's no surprise to the discovery of Gator's sinful side. Hall isn't the most benevolent-looking actor in SAG, after all; and his character is Gator by name and gator by nature. (Like his fellow Philip, Seymour Hoffman, Hall is an actor I'd gladly pay to see less of. When an actor gets to a certain level of crustiness it seems that nothing will rouse him. Hall seems to be at that pass: nothing refreshes his contempt.)

Gator's personal tragedy may also be inspired by the story of TV host Art Linkletter, who was the lovable television daddy of thousands of children. Linkletter had his own irreconcilable troubles with his daughter Dianne, who committed suicide. Such specific tragedies are just too specific for an epic treatment, however. Magnolia claims to be about the power of coincidence--"This cannot be 'one of those things,' not just a matter of chance," Jay intones. Yet everything in Magnolia is happenstance, not coincidence.

ANDERSON'S MILES-WIDE canvas is so broad that there's no good way for him to connect the dotlike actors on them. Reading the praise for this movie I'm surprised that no one seems to mention Magnolia's jerkiness.

The scenes don't match, and the film doesn't flow. Maybe this seems like the non-sequitur-ridden quality of real life to some, but I've never seen Moore give such an awkward performance. It looked more like blurting than acting--particularly in the scene in which she throws a tirade at a pharmacy.

Cruise has the jokey part of the film, with his preposterously raunchy pick-up tips. His jokes are flat and heavy-handed. Later, his character changes, showing mawkish repentance that's just as repellent as his chauvinism. "Tearing a cat" was Shakespearean slang for gross overacting; when Cruise is through with his deathbed scene, there's nothing left of Puss but the paws and the tail.

Anderson still seems more like an inspired imitator than a bold new talent. There are Martin Scorsese touches all over Boogie Nights, and Magnolia is apparently modeled on Robert Altman's Short Cuts (Moore starred in Short Cuts, and Henry Gibson, Altman's star in Nashville, has a showy cameo in Magnolia as the sharp-tongued scourge of a gay bar). In that peregrinating film about adultery (and worse) in Los Angeles, Altman linked together his characters with ballads by Annie Ross. Magnolia has a score by John Brion, producer of When the Pawn ... , the new CD by Anderson's girlfriend, Fiona Apple.

The music is sometimes ethereal, with juicy, candylike keyboards, and it is sweetened with the vocals of Aimee Mann. The music is meant to patch Magnolia's potholes, but it's still a bumpy ride. Mann's long, long cover version of "One Is the Loneliest Number" puts that skinny little pop tune on the rack and cranks the wheel. And Short Cuts wasn't all Altman's design; the director was working from a half dozen tales by a master of the short story, Raymond Carver, and each story's Chekhovian resolution reveals different perspectives on all the characters' pain.

BY CONTRAST, Magnolia has only one way to see each character's moral quandary. There's no twist to Anderson's incidents, just buried secrets. Lies and infidelity poisoned all of these relationships, and only utter honesty can redeem them. And the Biblical catastrophe prophesied throughout the film brings the movie to a finale meant to outdo Altman's climactic earthquake in Short Cuts.

At the very least, Anderson's an energetic filmmaker, with a grand vision. He's not skimpy. After seeing Magnolia, I felt like I'd seen his next 10 films squashed into one. Yet he's got to get over the newfound preachiness.

The immorality of everyone in Boogie Nights was essential to that picture's charm. Magnolia is, instead, the work of a filmmaker to whom a Salt Lake City of the soul is more interesting than the moral Casablancas his previous characters lived in.

Magnolia appears especially weak after a recent reading of The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver's epic exploration of the same theme Anderson chose: "The sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons." Kingsolver digs into the subject, laying out the blame for the current horrors in Africa to European paternalism. The missionary Reverend Price in Kingsolver's book commits the mortal sin of pride, which kills one of his children. In The Poisonwood Bible, life and death and forgotten history are displayed in an enticing labyrinth. In Magnolia, by contrast, Anderson's messages seems even more childish: "Be nicer to each other" and "coincidence is scary."

Seeing two citations of this law about the sins of the fathers, in Magnolia and The Poisonwood Bible, I sought out the origin of this cross-generation curse.

I found two. (1) God threatens the Israelites in Exodus 20:5: "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." (2) In one of his odes, the Roman poet Horace, the great humanist, phrases the sentiment as we've most often heard it: "Undeservedly, you will atone for the sins of your fathers."

The difference between the two quotes is two different angles on tragedy. One is the Judeo/Christian view of religious tribulation, deserved by the children of the unfaithful. The other is a pagan's view of the unfortunate consequence of history--seen in Carver, Kingsolver and elsewhere.

Anderson, choosing the Old Testament version, shows himself as completely old-fashioned in content as he is modern in style. For his avant-garde methods, he's still a cracker-barrel moralist, a Cecil B. DeMille for the new millennium.

Magnolia (R; 179 min.), directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, photographed by Robert Elswit and starring Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and Jason Robards, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the January 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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