When P.T. Anderson set out to write the follow up to Boogie Nights, he stated the intention to merge film and soundtrack in the manner of 1967’s The Graduate and Simon & Garfunkel. Like all good films in 1999, however, there was a twist – rather than have the screenplay create the score, he took a collection of Aimee Mann works-in-progress and adapted the screenplay from the songs themselves.
Film and score open with a cover of Harry Nilsson’s One (‘one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do / two can be as bad as one / it’s the loneliest number since the number one’) As a TV mogul lays dying, the lives around him unravel, as the past catches up with them – the wife who married for money, the son who disowned him, and others caught up by the game show he created. All however are in denial (‘even when it’s approaching torture / I’ve got my routine…’) until the world comes crashing down around them.
Anyone familiar with Aimee Mann (as Anderson most certainly is) knows that when her creations are about suffering, they will always go to the lowest depths. Former child prodigy “Quiz Kid Donnie Smith” (an agonizing but brilliant William H. Macy), still trades off past glory, trying desperately to deny that he is utterly alone in the world – whilst history repeats itself with his present day counterpart, bullied by an obsessive father.
Stealing the show (an impressive feat, given the cast) is Melora Walters as Claudia, daughter of the show’s host and completely off the rails. Her budding romance with the local police officer (as on the straight and narrow as she is not) provides a brilliant scene as they attempt to get together – and also a brilliant line, lifted directly from ‘Deathly’ (‘now that I’ve met you / would you object to never seeing each other again?’)
Eventually the numerous strands of the story are reeled in and resolved, through a balance of redemption against retribution of which Nick Cave would be proud. Forgiveness is given a chance to creep in (‘if you could save me / from the ranks of the freaks, who suspect they could never love anyone’) and some even survive.
Intertwined with the story, Mann’s songs are typically incisive, and direct – asking constantly, why is the world doing this to me? Who can I trust? Will anyone ever be there for me? Leading, in the film, to Donnie Smith’s desperate plea – “I have a lot of love to give.” The topic matter is more diverse than Mann’s previous release ‘I’m With Stupid’ (targeted at a scorned ex-boyfriend) and the music also, less acoustically based, more piano, more dramatic.
Much has been made of the film’s length. Magnolia requires patience – it is long. But the script is brilliant, characters with depth backed by excellent performances across an impressive cast, and it probably goes without saying (but it’ll be said anyway, just in case) that you’ll rarely get a score better matched to a film. Take a cushion, and take the risk.
One more thing. Tom Cruise is in this picture. Do not be afraid. Speaking as someone who typically loathes the man (especially that spreading the arms wide to make himself look bigger thing he always does), I can assure you that – gasp! – the cocky grin is finally given another chance to flourish (it’s been a while since Maverick in Top Gun, eh?) as sex(ism) evangelist Frank Mackey. And his catchline is hilarious, but far too rude to write on a respectable site like this. Go see.