Magnolia is Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to Boogie Nights. Over three hours long, it follows the lives of about 10 Californians in the course of one afternoon, evening and night.A prologue alerts us to the probable significance of chance and coincidence in the stories we're about to see. There's a male nurse, caring for an old TV producer, dying of cancer. His younger wife is out collecting medicines for him and cracking up; the nurse is tracking down the producer's long lost son. A child genius is being pushed to breaking point on a quiz show, hosted by a man who's also dying of cancer. A former child quiz champion is watching. The host's daughter is courted by a cop with a lot of love to give, but no one to give it to.
The establishing sequences of Magnolia, set to Aimee Mann's haunting rendition of "One (is the loneliest number)" are exhilarating and manage to surpass Anderson's achievements in Boogie Nights. But the latter held together better. Anderson has no problem establishing his stories, but he doesn't end them. That would be OK, if they tied together more or sufficiently intertwined, so that enjoying the coincidences gave us a payoff. But there's not much more than a few parallels. The freak meteorological event at the end is a great idea, but doesn't provide a sense of closure. Sure, real life isn't tied up neatly either, but if the movie isn't going to stop, why end it at three hours (why not a more reasonable two?). And why include the portentous prologue, with its finely honed stories of coincidence?There's still much to recommend about Magnolia. There's a string of fantastic ensemble performances from a varied supporting cast (including Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards, William H Macy and Melora Walters). Like Boogie Nights, this film is as good to listen to as it is to watch (Anderson's a rare director that can make a soundtrack of pop oldies "sing"). Magnolia sure has its moments but, like most of its fractured and stressed-out characters, the longer it goes the closer it gets to completely breaking up.