Some film lovers want their auteurs to remain well-behaved. Wanting to sink into a movie's illusion of reality, they hate anything that might jolt them out of it: stylized dialogue, self-conscious camera movement and unlikely plot twists. "Magnolia" is not a film for those people.
Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 opus, which was just released in a Blu-ray remaster by New Line, is unafraid of risk. Little risks, like the moment of self-consciousness in which one man, pleading with another, says, "This is that scene in the movie u2026 where you help me out." Medium-sized ones, like putting the story on hold for a montage in which one character after another sings along with Aimee Mann. And whoppers, like a climactic atmospheric event so far-fetched that Anderson primes us to accept it way back at the start, with a six-minute prologue reminding us that, in fact, "strange things happen all the time."
Strange things happen, in Anderson's film, in the service of jolting people out of their emotional comfort zones. Some saw that outrageous climax as the act of a cocky artist trying to see what he could get away with. But I think it's the equivalent of a scene here in which a vulnerable woman on a first date sits, coked-up and teary-eyed, begging to please, just once, start a relationship with no lies — begs to be able to say exactly what she feels without fear of embarrassment. "Magnolia" doesn't just wear its heart on its sleeve, it rips out its whole circulatory system and offers it up in the hopes you'll do the same.
"Magnolia" introduces more characters and relationships than I could summarize, but here's a taste: Two earnest young men, two messed-up women. Two dying guys who don't deserve the comforts they've enjoyed, two children of those men who were betrayed by them. One cynical observer, one know-nothing object of desire. Two whiz kids whose parents should have taken better care of them. A whole mess of folks who need more love than they have, or have too much and need to give some away. And Ricky Jay, always Ricky Jay. A magician and con-man in other films, here he speaks the truth as P.T. Anderson sees it. "These things do happen," he insists. And also: "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."
Anderson is often compared to Robert Altman, but Jay is just one link in "Magnolia" to the work of a very different filmmaker, David Mamet. Where Altman was famous for naturalism, Mamet is another artist who invents his own universe and reminds you you're in it. By using that kind of aesthetic approach in service of Altman-like humanism, P.T. Anderson annoyed a lot of people. But more than a decade after its release, "Magnolia" is hard to forget, whether it wins your heart or turns your stomach.