The Logic of Chance in Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)

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A multi-character/multi-plot format in cinema is still a sensitive issue or topic.

It is discouraged, too difficult and problematic, mostly avoided. It would cost too much, the running time would take too long, too radical or incomprehensible for most audiences, greatly increasing the risk of the film being a flop. Still, many directors try their hands with this artistic challenge. The output are either really good, or it’s really bad. Fortunately, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia belongs to the first kind.

In staggering three hours, Anderson weaves together various stories of despair, missed chances, and fear of the past. Each plot is linked to one another with again by chance. I initially wanted to give a basic plotline in this review but then I would risk giving away a logical framework to a film that doesn’t work along those lines. If you pay attention to details, you would just stress yourself with all the loopholes and inconsistencies. The film should flow on its own, and one should reserve one remarks and impressions in the end or be isolated in each scene. You will sympathize with Claudia (Melora Walters)’s despair, be frustrated with Frank (Tom Cruise)’s arrogance, root for Stanley (Jeremy Blackman)’s brilliance and guts, even laugh at Jim (John C. Reilly)’s clumsiness. There is no knowing how one story began and how it will end. You only get bits of each character’s life, but you won’t mind. One character’s experience is the same as the others. It would difficult to place judgment on each of them. Each one of them in their little, often flawed ways just wants to get thru the day.

I believe Magnolia, along with other similar films, serves as a critique to the single (or few) protagonist narrative formula. The audiences are only made to contemplate and make sense of the experience of one or two people. Naturally it follows that when audiences leave theaters, they will also seek that life changing occurrence that is centered on them and at most along with their loved ones. Hence, the rampant sadness and despair. The film goes beyond the self, and interestingly in the climax, beyond logic. Magnolia is a story of stories and this is cinema, and Anderson, at their full artistic potential.


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