- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2000

''Magnolia" has more than enough in common with "American Beauty" to coerce a predictable rash of critical commentary.

Two hours of cutthroat domestic caricature at the expense of weak-willed and pathetic characters rang the bell for "Beauty." Three hours of similar opportunism and insincere heartbreak are in store in "Magnolia."

New Line has distributed two overblown epics contrived by young writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson: "Boogie Nights" and now "Magnolia."

The management may be correct in regarding him as a prodigy worth encouraging. However, a tough-love patron is needed urgently to help remedy Mr. Anderson's chronic inability to sustain provocative pretexts or byzantine scenarios beyond the equivalent of Act 1. He's overdue for a helpful hint: Resist the epic pretensions.

"Magnolia" doesn't even show Act 1 stamina while insisting on a lavish, punitive running time.

The initial comic extravagance of the prologue proves a fake-out. Mr. Anderson attempts a similar gambit during the finale, invoking a biblical plague as a gratuitous slapstick calamity.

By that time, even his wacky brainstorms have grown burdensome.

Once "Magnolia" settles into a ponderous, roundabout methodology, the movie is a goner: an exercise in narrative evasion and concealment.

Mr. Anderson struggles to delay his own thematic moments of reckoning while depicting an ostensible day of reckoning that stalks several people residing in the San Fernando Valley.

These lost souls are linked by veiled family or emotional bonds. The title is parochial: It alludes to a street named Magnolia, a main drag that connects characters in locations that may seem far-flung at the outset.

The abiding artistic problem is that Mr. Anderson has nothing fresh or edifying to reveal about characters who are crying out to be pitied or consoled in one way or another.

He begins by simulating a ruthless outlook that suggests his puppets might be better off dead. Two are even near death from terminal illness.

After establishing a sardonic, mocking tone, Mr. Anderson goes mawkish with an overcompensating vengeance. It seems to take him an eternity to rig a fade-out.

You would swear the movie was ending at least three or four times before it does, once while smugly inserting an Aimee Mann song titled "Wise Up." Never wise to his own shortcomings, Mr. Anderson slogs on until he's chin-deep in crocodile tears.

The initial deathwatch involves Jason Robards as a media tycoon named Earl Partridge, attended by a male nurse, Phil Parma (the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman). Julianne Moore is fitfully present as Mrs. Partridge, a nervous wreck evidently addicted to prescription drugs.

Unfolding episodes link these three to Philip Baker Hall as a dying game-show host named Jimmy Gator, struggling to make it through another segment of "What Do Kids Know?"

The show's meal ticket, quiz kid Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), is a juvenile paragon exploited by his actor dad (Michael Bowen) and absurdly scorned by staffers and other contestants.

The poor lad isn't even allowed a quick trip to the bathroom during a taping session in which Gator himself forces a prolonged delay by collapsing on camera. Anyone want to question some of Mr. Anderson's ruses on a sheer common-sense basis?

The Partridge residence is associated with another show-business atrocity: seminars on male aggression staged by Tom Cruise as a flamboyant crackpot called Frank Mackie.

Supposedly, he has made a disreputable fortune whipping guys into a contemptuous lather about rampant feminism. He unravels during a prolonged interview with a soft-spoken TV journalist (April Grace).

Frank's 12-step hustle, "Seduce and Destroy," obviously needs a clever name change, to "Seduce and Conquer."

Mr. Cruise also needs a role sane enough to counteract the overheated absurdities of psycho Frank. The actor seems to play one scene in a state of literal semiarousal. But knowing the prosthetic tricks employed with Mark Wahlberg as the porn star in "Boogie Nights," who can tell if Mr. Cruise's enthusiasm reflects real pornographic prowess or a precocious special effect?

Movies / Gary Arnold

1/2 star

TITLE: "Magnolia"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity, sexual vulgarity and allusions to drug use; occasional sinister elements and fleeting graphic violence; a subplot involving a bullied child; subplots involving terminal illness; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

RUNNING TIME: About 180 minutes


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