"Magnolia," Paul Thomas Anderson's frenzied follow-up to "Boogie Nights," can be as intoxicating as the flower it's named for, and its characters, most of them as flawed and fascinating as the film itself, seem intoxicated by the overpowering scent. None is more besotted than Tom Cruise, who's sure to open eyes that were wide shut with his blistering turn in this edgy, messy, wildly ambitious portrait of American angst.
In this episodic look at nine troubled Southern Californians, coincidentally interrelated, Cruise is preeminent. He hasn't danced in his underpants since 1983's "Risky Business," but he does it here with mischievous energy. He is sexy, funny, infuriating and, yes, vulnerable in the role of Frank Mackey, a strutting self-help guru with a feminist-infuriating mission. He preaches the gospel of phallic supremacy ("seduce and destroy") and teaches its lifestyle mechanics at high-priced, seriously pornographic seminars.
In one of the film's most electrifying scenes, Mackey agrees to an interview with a sleek TV magazine reporter (the assured April Grace), who cuts through his macho posturing with the surgical precision of a seasoned mohel. I could have spent a couple of hours just watching Mackey, but there are eight other stories in the naked city, and even at three hours running time, Anderson's pressed to squeeze them all in.
Some characters are more interesting than others, like Mackey and Jim Kurring, an endearingly inept cop wonderfully portrayed by John C. Reilly. Last seen as a drug-popping porn star in "Boogie Nights," Reilly demonstrates his sensitive side as a clean-living policeman. He's more missionary than officer of the law, and along with Phil Parma, the nurse played by fellow "Boogie Nighter" Philip Seymour Hoffman, is one of the picture's two pure souls.
Parma's, Kurring's and Mackey's stories intersect with the other protagonists' through their parents' histories, the omnipresent media and most outrageously via a climactic plague straight out of Exodus. The movie's unifying theme, also biblical, effectively albeit none too subtly demonstrates that the sins of the father (and the enabling mother) are visited upon the child.
Jason Robards and Philip Baker Hall play dying fathers who in their final hours attempt to reconcile with their estranged offspring. Robards's bedridden wraith is the producer of a long-running quiz show for kids hosted by Hall's hypocritical icon of family values. The latest installment of the show pits a panel of adults against a trio of young prodigies, one of whom is a lonely little brainiac (Jeremy Blackman) who has come to see himself as a freak and a source of income for his grasping, emotionally distant father (Michael Bowen).
The child's troubles echo those of a former contestant, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), now a self-pitying clerk at a seedy appliance warehouse. Smitten with a hunky bartender at his favorite gay watering hole, Smith more than earns the barbed contempt of a bitchy barfly (a yummy supporting turn by Henry Gibson).
Melora Walters, Julianne Moore and Melinda Dillon, all in high dudgeon, play, respectively, a coke-stoked naif, an errant trophy wife and a betrayed spouse. All are inclined to high-decibel hissy fits, which is just as well because some dialogue is drowned out by the bone-rattling soundtrack featuring singer Aimee Mann, whose keening lyrics inspired the film and are heard throughout.
"Magnolia," with its episodic structure, ensemble cast and San Fernando Valley setting, recalls Robert Altman's bitter Southern California Gothic, "Short Cuts."
Anderson, however, is no cynic. He's a bighearted guy who's madly in love with his characters, and even when they're very bad, he can't bring himself to sneer at their shortcomings. Punish them, yes, for the filmmaker believes in a just God and the pop aphorism that what goes around comes around.
Unfortunately, an orderly moral sense can be a shortcoming when it comes to cooking up startling revelations and profound insights. "Magnolia," although enormously entertaining and visually exciting, is ultimately the work of a gifted but naive 29-year-old whiz kid. Invariably, good things--like romance and redemption--happen to good people. And that's too easy for so ambitious an undertaking.
Magnolia (180 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, drug use, sexuality and some violence.
CAPTION: Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore are two of the chapters in Paul Thomas Anderson's interlocking story.