Okay, so I just finished watching Magnolia. I have to be honest. It was a humongous waste of my time. And it was no small chunk of time either: it clocked in at a very hefty three hours.
The main thing that’s wrong with the film is its flimsy premise. I was tricked with a promise of interrelated events woven artfully into a mosaic. Instead, I got loosely related characters that were barely connected. The connections between the various stories and characters are, for all intents and purposes, whimsical. There was an incredibly sore lack of profundity in the relationships between the stories. I kept sitting out the set pieces, hoping that the end would bring some mind blowing connection between all the characters, an ending that neatly ties together all the loose ends.
I don’t have a formal education in film or storytelling. But I do know that especially with film you should be concise, focused, and show a strong direction in the story. If you can take out one aspect, one part of the story, one character, and still have a strong story, then that part needs to be cut out. In Magnolia, Stanley the quiz whiz kid barely had anything to do with the movie: if you took him out of it, the movie could still stand on its own. Other connections that are witnessed in the film are just as weak. All you have to look at is this diagram on Wikipedia. It’s laughable how these characters are related to each other. It’s almost random. When filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson had the opportunity to explore and create whatever he wanted, he grabbed the chance. And therein lies the problem. Anderson made a film based on his whimsy. As the Wikipedia says, “New Line Cinema…told Anderson that he could do whatever he wanted and the filmmaker realized that, ‘I was in a position I will never ever be in again.'” He had the chance to draw up an impressive cast list, the freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted. He got a free pass. It’s like when someone gets immunity on a game show and fucks around on the next contest because he knows he’s free from impunity.
When I was writing my first screenplay, I thought of putting in little connections based on pieces of things I was in love with at the time. I had just recently discovered Johnny Cash and really enjoyed the song, “Down the Street to 301”. Needless to say, I wrote into my screenplay that Jana lived in apartment 301. I also had a little collection of short stories that I loved. I wanted to find ways to put them into my screenplay. There was this story I had, a dialogue where a twenty year old guy was being hit on by a girl that would be best described as jail bait. I fit that into a bus ride just because I wanteditin my screenplay.
I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar is what happened to Anderson. In fact, it fits right into his M.O. He outright ripped some lyric he loved (“Now that I’ve met you/Would you object to/Never seeing each other again”), taken from the music he was listening to at the time. He even had the damned title before he even started the screenplay. It’s like he worked backwards. He had random pieces of creativity that he fell in love with: song lyrics, music, little stories, and really bad numerological references. Then he wrote a screenplay that used all these pieces.
The result? A world that makes little sense, connections that are weak, and an extensively painful movie that far from rewards the audience for sitting through the entire three hours. The whole story was forced. There was nothing natural about the world crafted by the movie. There was no serendipity, no profound connection of seemingly random people. A story here, a story there, and a forced connection was written in order to tie it together. The entire film lacked direction and had no real dramatic arc in a way that makes sense. It stank of the touch of an overenthusiastic amateur screenwriter who lacked the finesse of a seasoned story teller. Magnolia is what happens when you let someone run amuck with free reign and a blank check. It’s like a kid who gets to spend all day with a Lego set. By the end of the day, he will have created from red and blue bricks a twenty foot robot with nukes for legs, water cannons for eyes, eleven machine guns for arms, and a laser sword across its chest. Oh yeah, and he can transform into a penguin, because penguins are cool and can swim. In other words, a veritable monstrosity that makes no sense.
I liken Magnolia to modern abstract art. It lacks structure, and one must concentrate solely on the content that isn’t even decently presented. I appreciate films that make you think, but what I don’t appreciate are films that make you search for a meaning. I feel that a good film is one that is the impetus for interesting conversation about philosophy, life, and truth. If you have to discuss the multitude of interpretations or attempt to find the meaning of a film, then I must opine that it cannot be called a “good” film.
It upsets me that there are plenty of talented screenwriters who may never see the day that their vision is created and put up on the silver screen. Instead, utter trash like Magnolia is given critical acclaim. I suspect that the more abstract or unintelligible a film is, the more acclaim it will garner. After all, if you don’t get it, you must be an idiot. And nobody wants to be known as an idiot.