Magnolia is about a bunch of messed-up LA residents whose unhappy lives interconnect, sort of. Sound like Robert Altman's Short Cuts? Sure, but Anderson is after some other idea – something about the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons, I guess, since nearly every character in the film is either a father who has treated his children monstrously, or one of those children now dealing badly with the scars.
The film is well-acted – naturally, given its cast – but bloated, and Anderson, who I doubt has lived much of a life outside his own pampered Hollywood existence (he even dates Fiona Apple, for Pete's sake), imagines himself some great sage who understands the world much better than any of his poor characters. He bites off more than he can chew.
I have the same problems with this film as I did Anderson earlier effort, Boogie Nights – the guy just needs somebody smart to stand behind him and say, "Paul, you need to trim this down a little bit." He frequently uses music as a crutch to pace his often leaden scenes. Here he commits another act of hubris, by allowing his buddies Aimee Mann and Jon Brion to provide songs and score, respectively. (Mann and Brion often perform at an LA club called Largo; Michael Penn – Sean's brother and the composer for Boogie Nights – also performs there.) Brion's score is harmless, but Mann's songs are overplayed to the extent where we're expected to believe that everybody in LA listens to her. It's phony. And a risky scene in which all the characters sing along to the same song is also phony. While we're talking about phony, much of the action centers around a live broadcast of a game show that involves several of the main characters. Excuse me, a live game show? What decade does Anderson think we live in?
I must give some praise, however: the last half hour of the film concerns an actual plague of frogs upon Los Angeles. Yes, millions of frogs fall out of the sky and splat everywhere. Why? By that point, who cares? At least it's exciting. In fact it's one of the most memorable movie scenes of 1999.
Go to your multiplex, watch the first ten minutes of Magnolia, then go see something else. When that other movie is finished, come back and watch the frogs. You will have missed nothing else of interest, not even Tom Cruise's "breakthrough" (read: tolerable) performance. Though John C. Reilly's Christian cop stands out as the one likable and complex character.