In a time when people grieve for their lack of feelings and are strangers to their own souls, we need more tales about synchronicity. Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson begins his three-hour drama set in the San Fernando Valley of California with three vignettes designed to show us that "strange things happen all the time." It may be that noticing uncanny and inexplicable events is the closest most people come to cherishing the Great Mystery and the connections underlying all of life.
Copying the episodic and intertwining-story style of Robert Altman's Short Cuts and John Sayles's City of Hope, Anderson sets out to expose the alienation, emptiness, and futility in the lives of nine characters who are twirled around and spiked by the media, materialism, the availability of drugs, career disappointment, and lack of intimacy. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) lies dying in his luxurious home attended by Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a nurse who takes upon himself the task of orchestrating the wealthy man's reconciliation with his son Frank (Tom Cruise). The latter is the pop-psych host of a popular cable TV show called "Seduce and Destroy," which appeals to women-hating males. Meanwhile, Earl's second wife Linda (Julianne Moore) unsuccessfully tries to deal with her husband's impending death.
Another father is trying to win the forgiveness of his daughter. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the alcoholic host of "What Do Kids Know," a TV quiz show. Dying of cancer, he reaches out to Claudia (Melora Walters), his drug-addicted daughter whom he sexually abused for years. She goes out on a date with the only well-meaning and good-hearted person in the film Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a religious cop who believes that his job enables him to do good in the world by helping others.
Two other characters in Magnolia are related to the TV program. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is a child star who brings the show to a halt in protest against his unloving father (Michael Bowen). And Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is a 1960's quiz show star whose life is on the skids. Working at an electronics store, he's desperately trying to get the attention of a gay bartender at a place he haunts.
Although writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrates a flair for cinematic creativity, this over-the-top movie comes across as too long, too strident, and too talky. During much of the drama, the viewer will feel like an unwelcome guest in homes where hysterical people are screaming at each other. These characters are erupting with anger and hostility.
The apocalyptic finale is meant to convey the biblical message of the film judgment will come to those whose evil is passed down from one generation to another. Anderson's Magnolia desperately wants to be seen and experienced as a heavy hitter an important movie. But like the Zen archer in the ancient parable demonstrates, those who try too hard usually miss the target.