IN "MAGNOLIA," an angry woman curses a blue streak at the cop at her door. A terminal cancer patient rants from his deathbed. A cocaine-addicted woman screams at her abusive father to stay out of her house. An obscenity-spewing sex guru leads enrapt audiences with misogynistic chants.
Over the course of three hours, these characters -- all residents of the San Fernando Valley and few of them happy -- never stop flipping their lids, venting their spleens and blowing head gaskets. Did California run out of Prozac or something?
No, this is writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's extended screamfest of a movie, in which Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy and others don't just push the envelope. They shred it into hysterical confetti.
Anderson seems compelled to repeat the formula and triple the energy level of "Boogie Nights," his 1997 movie about the pornographic film industry of the 1970s, which established him as a filmmaker on the rise.
As he did in "Boogie Nights," Anderson creates an Altmanesque, multi-plotted story featuring scores of characters, most of them in dire need of psychoanalysis.
But Anderson instructs his performers to go long on the hot-button emotions. Most scenes -- or so it seems -- begin and conclude with anger, bitterness, yelling or shouting. Anderson considers himself an actor's director, but he's something far less romantic: a star-struck enabler.
Robards is Earl Partridge, the cancer patient, whose terminal illness has forced him to confront the mistakes he's made, including years of estrangement from his son.
That son, we find out, is Frank T.J. Mackey (Cruise), a booster for male chauvinists, who incites his seminar audiences into a frenzy of hatred for women.
Hovering around Earl's bed are his hyper, pill-popping wife Linda (Moore), who is sorry for the affairs she's had behind Earl's back; and Phil Parma (Hoffman), a male nurse who has grown attached to Earl in his dying days.
We also meet two child geniuses who made their names on television quiz shows: Donnie Smith (Macy) was a trivia star in the '60s. Now he's a pathetic has-been, out of money and working at a dismal electronics store. Then there's Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the latest sensation on the "What Do Kids Know?" show, whose on-air genius never seems enough to earn the love of his father.
Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the slick, lovable host of that show, is a far different animal behind the scenes. Now that he's become sick, he wants to make up with Claudia (Melora Walters), the grown daughter he abused years ago.
Well, there's a little bit of hope in the movie: Claudia and lonely police officer Jim Kurring (Reilly) are falling in love.
Anderson's movie grabs ferociously at every available topic he can dream up: chance, coincidence, synchronicity, anger, bitterness, deception, unrequited love, child abuse, family bile and biblical retribution, to name a few. Emotional blight and misery fill this world, and the only relief is biblical: an enormous response from the heavens that evokes the curses of Moses in Egypt.
Anderson clearly has the talent, as a virtuoso opening sequence about absurdity and the laws of probability demonstrates. But when you strip away the surface intensity of this movie, nothing remains but Anderson's desire to make a movie. Shouldn't there be something more?
MAGNOLIA (R, 195 minutes) -- Contains intense emotional material, violence, nudity and ceaseless obscenity. Area theaters.