A handful of people in California's San Fernando Valley are having one hell of a day. TV mogul Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is on his deathbed; his trophy wife (Julianne Moore) is stockpiling tranquilliser prescriptions all over town with alarming determination. Earl's nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying desperately to get in touch with Earl's only son, sex-guru Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise), who's about to have his carefully constructed past blown by a TV reporter (April Grace). Whiz kid Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is being goaded by his selfish dad into breaking the record for the game show "What Do Kids Know?" Meanwhile, Stanley's predecessor, the grown-up quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) has lost his job and is nursing a severe case of unrequited love. And the host of "What Do Kids Know?", the affable Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), like Earl, is dying of cancer, and his attempt to reconcile with his cokehead daughter (Melora Walters) fails miserably. She, meanwhile, is running hot and cold with a cop (John C. Reilly) who would love to date her, if she can sit still for long enough. And over it all, a foreboding sky threatens to pour something more than just rain.
This third feature from Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") is a maddening, magnificent piece of film-making, and an ensemble film to rank with the best of Robert Altman ("Short Cuts", "Nashville")--every little piece of the film means something, solidly placed for a reason. Deftly juggling a breathtaking ensemble of actors, Anderson crafts a tale of neglectful parents, resentful children and love-starved souls that's amazing in scope, both thematically and emotionally. Part of the charge of "Magnolia" is seeing exactly how may characters Anderson can juggle, and can he keep all those balls in air (indeed he can, even if it means throwing frogs into the mix). And it's been far too long since we've seen a film-maker whose love of making movies is so purely joyful. This electric energy is reflected in the actors, from Cruise's revelatory performance to Reilly's quietly powerful turn as the moral centre of the story. While at three hours it's definitely not suited to everyone's taste, "Magnolia" is a compelling, heartbreaking, ultimately hopeful meditation on the accidents of chance that make up our lives. The "soundtrack" features eight wonderful songs by Aimee Mann, including "Save Me", around which Anderson built the script. --"Mark Englehart"