After the success of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson directed Magnolia to achieve critical and commercial acclaim in 1999. The film features an ensemble cast which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, William Macy and Tom Cruise, among others. The film bases its premise on a mosaic of characters, their limitations and redeeming features, and the seemingly coincidental occurrences which link them inextricably to each other.
The nature of “coincidence” is one of the main themes of the film. The film itself begins, with a series of bizarre incidents, some true and some mere urban legends, where people, knowingly or unknowingly, in their interactions with each other, give rise to bizarre consequences. The narrative itself says that such incidents are not just coincidences; there is something more to them.
The film then focuses on nine people struggling with their efforts to understand others, and at times, themselves. They are all battling with some guilt, trying to fulfill an unexpressed wish, straining under the weight of secrets, which when revealed, will have colossal implications for the relationships that they share with each other. Some have wronged others grievously, some are seeking a sense of self- respect, and some are just trying to escape from their inner demons. A father, his life drained away by cancer, longs to see his abandoned son before morphine overwhelms his senses. A successful TV show host unsuccessfully tries to overcome the memories of a heinous act he committed, which has resulted in alienation from his daughter and wife. They are all linked in one way or the other; they all try to seek solace in each other. Like the petals of Magnolia, they all meet at some point; they all have something in common with one another. Blatantly exposing the limitations and inner demons of the characters has an overall positive effect, making them more human and believable, rather than cardboard cut characters that one has difficulty relating to.
This brings us to another theme of the film: reconciliation. The film starts with a kind of an instability and disorder, with the characters yearning for some sort of a balance, an end to this constant disturbance and turbulence in their relationships. They want to eliminate the differences and misunderstandings which have sprung up between them; some are successful in this effort whereas some are not. These efforts are cut short by an unexpected event, which assures us of the film’s spiritual theme. The concept of fate and coincidence, which I discussed earlier, is consciously underplayed by that of morality and spirituality.
Among the cast, Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore are brilliant in their respective roles. Cruise plays a man who has capitalized on the success of his ‘Seduce and Destroy’ franchise, and has become shrewd and embittered, mercilessly avoiding human contact at all levels and at the same time, struggling to keep his regret, disappointment and anger – all of which are very human in essence under the surface. Cruise received an Oscar nomination for his performance. The film itself won the Golden Bear Award.
The film has a definite religious (perhaps a Christian) side to it. The film seems to be asking us a question: Are these bizarre incidents, laced with heavy ironies and paradoxes, simple coincidences? The answer lies in the film itself.