A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Magnolia is a 1999 drama that runs more than three hours and addresses the never-ending consequences of child abuse. Adults who were either emotionally, financially, or sexually abused as children muddle through drug- and alcohol-addled lives, unable to connect or, in some case, function. One becomes successful by offering popular seminars on how to "seduce and destroy" women, seemingly waging a war on women even though it turns out his father was the one who damaged him. Death and dying are prominent themes, and two men are seen dying of cancer. One woman attempts suicide by overdose, and a man shoots himself. A man has an erection in his underwear. Breasts are viewed briefly through a blurred shower door. A man looks at a pornographic magazine, and a brief view of female nudity is seen. Drug use, sexual situations, intense and repeated use of profanity, including the word "f--k" (more than 100 times), make this an iffy choice for all but the most mature teens. Spoiler alert: Thousands of frogs fall out of the air, causing slippery, bloody, traffic accidents and generally creeping everyone out. Amphibian-phobics be warned.
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What's the story?
MAGNOLIA is a braid of twisted and intertwined mini-plots that generally address the lasting effects on individuals and society of the abuse of children. A boy (Jeremy Blackman) has a run on a kid TV quiz show; he is treated like a commodity by both his self-absorbed actor-wannabe father and by the producers of the show. A man in his 40s who drinks too much (William H. Macy) is fired from his job, a position he only got because he is a former children's quiz show star. He complains his parents stole all the money he won on the show and he's bitter for the rest of his life because of that unfairness. A self-aggrandizing, crude, and boastful author and celebrity lecturer (Tom Cruise) instructs hotel ballrooms full of frustrated men on how to seduce women, whether the women want to be seduced or not. It turns out that while his mother was dying of cancer, he was abandoned by his insensitive father, the quiz show's producer (Jason Robards), who is now himself dying painfully of cancer. His empathetic nurse (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) struggles to get in touch with the estranged son before the dad dies, which leads to a volcanic expression of pent-up hatred. Also dying is the 30-year host of the quiz show (Phillip Baker Hall), who is trying vainly to make amends with his unforgiving, estranged, drug-abusing daughter (Malora Walters), whom he may or may not have sexually abused. References to Exodus 8:2 (remember the 10 plagues?) abound, and representations of magnolias are also noteworthy.
Is it any good?
Given the complexity and ambition of this film, the 28-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson certainly displayed brilliance and talent in the writing and direction of it. That said, Magnolia remains a highly flawed yet intense piece that contains over-long, nearly unwatchable sequences of great actors doing their best with forced and often ridiculous plotting. Anderson himself admitted 16 years after the release that it was too long, and that bagginess may chase away viewers who could otherwise enjoy good performances and benefit from the film's general warning that cruelty to and neglect of children is an ongoing problem with far-reaching consequences that we all must deal with.
Especially trying, and unbelievable, are the ravings of a drug-addled wife who married her husband for money but has fallen in love with him now that he's dying. The tribulations of a sweet, humiliated kid on a live game show are also wrenching. And it's far-fetched to think a man of high intelligence with normal teeth would believe his love life would improve if he could only afford braces. The tribulations of an overbearing but kindly cop feel completely dispensable. If Anderson one day cuts this down by a good hour, it will probably allow what is best in the film to be far more affecting and accessible.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about different kinds of child abuse. Do you think the ultimate psychological damage done by neglect is different from that caused by emotional abuse? Is constant belittling abuse? How do all these differ from physical or sexual abuse? Do you think children can recover from these forms of abuse?
Magnolia asks viewers to see some drug abuse and alcoholism as the result of pain inflicted during childhood, and thus for all of us to view those with substance problems less harshly. Do you think all substance abuse can be traced to parental errors? Do some substance abusers come from loving and supportive homes?
Do you think that putting kids on TV shows that make money for adults is a form of child abuse? Why or why not? How do you think such shows could be monitored to ensure the safety of children who are featured?
- In theaters: December 8, 1999
- On DVD or streaming: August 29, 2000
- Cast: Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, Jeremy Blackman, John C. Reilly
- Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
- Studio: New Line Home Video
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 188 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: for strong language, drug use, sexuality and some violence
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