Every petal tells a story

Film - Jonathan Romneyon the beauty of <em>Magnolia</em>

Over the past decade, the mainstream of American cinema has been increasingly mired in the same weary paths, and many people blame that on the rise of the scriptwriting gurus and their prescriptions for homogenised narrative. If you believe their manuals, storytelling should be a nice orderly matter - three-act structures, story arcs, character development and the rest, all making for tidy packages, easily comprehensible, perfectly coherent and safely confined within genre boundaries.

This does not, however, account for Hollywood's increasing inability to tell tight, well-managed tales. Quite the opposite: we are getting ungainly concoctions that have precious little to say and cannot say it in less than two hours - for example, the featherlight Meet Joe Black and the death-row schmaltzer, The Green Mile, both clock in at over three hours.

Magnolia is a three-hour wonder that makes a virtue out of excess. Its sprawling effusiveness often hits the outer limits of coherence and plausibility. But the third feature from the wildly talented Paul Thomas Anderson - director of porn-world panorama, Boogie Nights, and the lesser-known gambling miniature, Hard Eight - is so brimful of energies, so much the story of its own uncontainable enthusiasms, that you simply have to go along with it. Just take a deep breath every now and then.

Magnolia's story of lost souls in the San Fernando Valley is close to Boogie Nights, not just because several of its superb cast reappear, but also because its overlapping stories again aspire to limn the spirit of a city. Anderson is shaping up as LA's own movie-brat Balzac, although Magnolia's nearest equivalent is really Tony Marchant's recent BBC series, Holding On, a London tableau of everyday madness. Magnolia is also very close to Robert Altman's LA ensemble piece, Short Cuts: it, too, has a surprise catastrophe climax, but Anderson's deus ex machina is so utterly bizarre, so flamboyantly biblical, that I wouldn't dream of blowing the gaffe (even though some of the advertising material already has).

This bizarre apocalypse gives the clue to Anderson's notion of structure. He works by accumulation, piling detail on detail, moment on moment, small telling revelation on revelation, until finally something has to blow: the characters explode, the world boils over, the narrative house of cards caves in on itself. This catastrophe theory of narrative may be inherent to portrayals of a city perched on a fault line, and you can see its effects in the acting: watch how Julianne Moore's nervy, disconsolate fussing at last erupts in her magnificent outburst in a pharmacy.

The story takes place over one day and one night, with the characters immobilised by a relentless downpour: the film is an incomparable monument to pathetic fallacy. The cast includes Tom Cruise, luxuriantly horrible as a strutting sex guru peddling seduction as a technique of militaristic attrition; a dying TV magnate (Jason Robards), his young wife (Jullianne Moore) and his patient carer (the always majestic Philip Seymour Hoffman); a former child-quiz champ (William H Macy) and a boy (Jeremy Blackman) undergoing the same ordeal on the same show, hosted by a weary showbiz pro (Philip Baker Hall); a nervous, well-meaning cop (John C Reilly); and a bitter, coke-frazzled young woman (Melora Walters) he falls for.

It is a lot to take in, but Anderson doesn't want us to take it all in easily. He zaps from strand to strand with blinding speed, in hyperanimated fugue-like montages, noisily through-scored on the soundtrack, in blurs of camera-work (he is a shameless abuser of the steadicam). But, at key points, he slows down to let us spend a little quiet time with his characters. At one point, everything stops and all the main players sing along contemplatively to Aimee Mann's song, "Wise Up" - a sudden audacious conflation of soap opera and musical.

Anderson has a special knack of reminding us that we don't know as much as we think we do, especially when we think we are just watching another movie. He repeatedly overturns our expectations: Cruise's character, in a critical dismantling of the star's own screen persona, flirts gruesomely with a female TV interviewer, but we gradually realise that she is doing the search-and-destroy job on him.

This is also a very self-reflexive film. Anderson rather indulges himself by kicking off with a jaunty but rather pedantic disquisition on outrageous real-life coincidences. Characters keep measuring life against film: Hoffman, realising he is living out a screen-style moment of high emotion, says: "They have those scenes in the movies because they're true." And when Anderson finally tests our credulity to the maximum, he cuts to a line of text in a picture on the wall: "But it did happen!"

You come out of Magnolia exhilarated and a little battered, feeling that you've had an authentic blast of the pulse of life - not life as it is usually packaged by the movies, but life in all its cacophony and incoherence, not to mention the excessive coherence that is coincidence. Anderson is not a sensible director: he can't stop himself from cramming it all in, but it's been a long time since anyone in American cinema has shown such an unbounded appetite - not just for images but for the world. Let the script manuals explain that away if they can.

"Magnolia" (18) opens in London's West End cinemas on 17 March, and nationwide on 24 March

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us