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summer cinema

Tom Cruise in Magnolia.

The Establishing Shot:

In 1997, at age 26, P.T. Anderson made Boogie Nights, a splashy hit that prompted New Line Cinema to offer him carte blanche (final cut even) on his next project. He kept seeing a flower - a slow blossoming magnolia - in his head during the Boogie Nights publicity tour, and afterward retreated to William H. Macy's cabin in Vermont to write an intimate character study. Something simple he could wrap in a month.

The Close Up:

Anderson lost and found himself in his orchid apparition. Magnolia (1999) turned into a six-month shoot that devoured a million feet of film, flowering into a preposterous, enthralling mega-soap set in the San Fernando Valley among dying potentates (Jason Robards and Philip Baker Hall) and their haunted, compromised offspring, including, memorably, Tom Cruise as a ferocious men's liberation guru. (Cruise would garner his only Oscar nomination for the astonishing performance.) A young man's work, Magnolia is recklessly ambitious, reflecting everything Anderson knew about art and surmised about life. The intersecting storylines are straight out of Robert Altman (two bit parts are played by Henry Gibson and Michael Murphy, who both appeared in Altman's Nashville), the tragic TV game show material here could have come from a lost J.D. Salinger short story, and the film's swooping, circling cameras remind us of Martin Scorsese. That said, the candour and probing intimacy, not to mention the infatuation with soundtrack songstress Aimee Mann, are all Anderson's. So is the costly special-effects climax, a cleansing biblical storm that brings a plague of (mechanical) falling frogs down on the film's hapless wanderers.

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The Wrap:

A film that claims that coincidence is fate, Magnolia presumably took root when writer-director Anderson read that the bark of the flower he saw in his head was believed by some to be a cure for cancer. The discovery came months after his own father, Ernie Anderson, long-time ABC staff announcer, died of the disease in 1997. P.T. Anderson would appear to have been in a state of grace when he made this film. It's a wildly improbable (and entertaining) Hollywood anomaly - a character-based drama that is filmed with the roller coaster fury of a thriller. What's more, it's a story filled with rain that is sure to bring relief on a hot, still August night.

And there are so many wonderful shooting stars to watch; in addition to Cruise, Robards and Hall, Julianne Moore and Macy make memorable turns. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a bewildered, caring hospice nurse, is the heart and soul of the film.

Finally, the DVD extra Magnolia "diary" is worth the effort, if only to see the segment where a past exhausted, crazy-with-laughter Anderson pretends that then-girlfriend Fiona Apple has become Magnolia.

Special to The Globe and Mail