Magnolia (1999)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

An epic mosaic of many interrelated characters in search of happiness, forgiveness, and meaning in the San Fernando Valley.

Not sanctimonious, but pious. And its strict adherence to late-90s liberal orthodoxy doesn't result in good art. An analogous argument could be made for the pseudo-catharsis in that everyone gets their just rewards or just desserts at the end. The multiple characters (done better by Roger Altman) pretends to complexity and depth, all underlined by contemporary music that has not stood the test of time. But the film is ultimately saying nothing to me beyond the questionably profound statement that all our lives are both interlocking and interleaving.

The too-clever-by-half kid who 'speaks truth to the adults' is merely an annoying cliché at this point, but the treatment of the cop with a very hard life reads as obnoxious in 2023. We are forgiven an in-depth portrait of the African-American character by sheer dint that he isn't given much opportunity, except to clearly implicate him with stealing a firearm and then exonerating him at the end: oooh, you got us.


Magnolia, which itself fairly reeks of desperation, [is] a folly groaning under its own weight, as if made by someone working frantically to incorporate everything that he has ever thought or felt, someone who suspects that this might be his last chance to work on a canvas of such size. The result is both too much and not enough. The script’s games of doubling […] reflect an active conceptual intelligence, but at times Magnolia feels like a baggy omnibus made by filmmakers of wildly varying levels of talent. […] Magnolia has one true inspiration, however, in the character of Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who ranks as one of Anderson’s most indelible creations. […] The character, who Anderson has said was based in part on Secrets of Speed Seduction Mastery author Ross Jeffries, appeared some years before terms like “negging” and “kino” entered popular parlance. […] From the perspective of 2017, the creation of Mackey seems downright clairvoyant. Here we have a standard bearer for men’s rights activism, complete with “trigger liberal snowflakes” talking points, operating before his time, in the late, louche Clintonian period. […] Last-minute gambits are a trademark of Anderson’s films—the most famous being the ending of Magnolia, a downpour of frogs prophesied by billboards reading “Exodus 8:2.” […] These bet-the-house moments, on which he is prepared to stake the entire integrity of his film, mirror the in extremis commitments of his damaged characters. Yet some of the exhilaration comes precisely because the risk of artistic failure is treacherously real.

Nick Pinkerton (The Point Mag)


Magnolia is Paul Thomas Anderson’s last attempt to date to craft an Altmanesque tapestry, before its initial rejection sent him into less populated, stylistically austere realms of regret and melancholy—making films that don’t even try to register on the mainstream radar.

Chuck Bowen (Slant Magazine)