We have a snake to thank for Paul Thomas Anderson's ambitious but intimate epic.

Published October 16, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Jason Robards, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise
New Line Home Video; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of documentary, trailers, deleted scenes, music video

Junior genius Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" may be imperfect and uneven, but this intimate epic is far too good to be considered just a noble failure. I've seen it twice since its release, and both times I've walked away toting up its faults -- and then thinking about it for days, its ghost walking by my side. It's remarkable not just for its craftsmanship and astonishing performances (from the likes of Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman) but for Anderson's deeply compassionate approach: When his characters suffer, he always allows them their dignity. He's the anti-Lars von Trier, a modern and innovative director who doesn't feel the need to play gleeful puppet master, putting his characters through painful contortions just to score heavy-handed points.

Anderson's previous features, "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights," marked him as an ambitious lad, devoted both to technique and to giving his actors the space (and the writing) to do great things. With "Magnolia," Anderson goes even further: His script is a nest of stories that don't so much interweave as blend and blur into each other. The narrative, involving a series of characters from a dying man (Jason Robards) to a supermacho infomercial guru (Tom Cruise) to an upright but sensitive cop (John C. Reilly), makes your head whirl a bit as you're watching it, but afterward it emerges as surprisingly simple and satisfying. And the picture's finale is like nothing else I've ever seen: perplexing, otherworldly and visually stunning.

The DVD includes a terrific extra, a feature documentary called "Magnolia Diary" that follows Anderson and his crew from the picture's inception to the last days of the lengthy, complicated, exhausting shoot. Anderson, an odd little man who looks like a junior high school kid and probably has twice as much energy, explains that he completed a good chunk of the script while locked away in Macy's remote Vermont cabin. There was a snake outside on the steps, as good a reason as any to stay indoors for a few days and write. Robards talks a little about the filming of "Magnolia" and a lot about one of his experiences working with Sam Peckinpah: Apparently, during the filming of "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," the director featured Robards in a scene with a highly poisonous lizard -- without revealing, of course, that the reptile was at all lethal.

Sure, Robards was digressing -- but then again, this is Jason Robards. His ramble is fascinating, and it's also weirdly symbolic of Anderson's approach to working with actors. He loves them, genuinely loves them, and in addition to being eager to give them material that will engage and energize them, he wants to give them the freedom to do good work -- and to talk about poisonous lizards if they damn well feel like it.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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