It’s impossible to describe what Magnolia is about, only how it’s about it: Paul Thomas Anderson’s dizzying San Fernando Valley opus sprawls over three hours. A dozen people have Big, Important Days, some of which, by the mysterious alchemy or coincidence or strangeness, intersect. It plays now just as weird and complicated and intense as it did upon release in 1999, a melodrama that “goes nowhere” by virtue of going everywhere. Some scenes drag on so intimately and awkwardly, it’s almost as if the movie wonders when you’ll finally look away. Philip Seymour Hoffman is compassionate and panicky; Tom Cruise has great hair. During the Phantom Thread press cycle, Anderson said he’d tell his younger self to “chill the fuck out and cut twenty minutes.” That is absolutely correct, and also my new mantra.
I’ve been returning to Magnolia for the same reason I watch Jackie a lot, or why I watch scenes from Birth once a week. (Someone please give me a limited-series podcast to talk about Birth.) There is something calming, cathartic even, about the way these movies externalize my frustration, the way they communicate my fears. There is also some morbid humor that all these movies have in common: white women walk around exquisite houses and moan about — gestures wildly — all this. All this privilege, all this expectation, all this failure, all this hurt. But they do it while wearing mascara and maybe Chanel. They do it while still living fabulously. Something about that makes me laugh.
In Magnolia, Julianne Moore plays Linda Partridge, the much-younger wife of a television executive dying of cancer. When we meet her, she’s weeping to one doctor, and then another, telling them about how hard it is to watch her husband ill and in pain. With one scribble on a prescription pad she vanishes out of their offices and gets back on the road. An hour into the movie, she takes her fistful of paper to a pharmacy. A pharmacist (Patrick Healy) eyes her suspiciously, peppering her with questions and prying comments about the Prozac and Dexedrine and morphine she’s ordered. He is cautious and vague at first, but clearly thinks something is awry. “You must have a lot going on with all that stuff back there, huh? You could have quite a party, all that stuff,” becomes the openly rude “Strong, strong stuff here, boy. Wow! What exactly do you have wrong, that you need all this stuff?” The frame tightens around her, the score becomes a little more zany and hectic. She snaps.
“Motherfucker. Motherfucker! You fucking asshole,” she tells him. We start to see the cracks. A moment ago, she was detached, aloof; now she’s hysterical. It’s a squirmy, suspenseful breakdown that suggests that one set of prying eyes, one more opinion, feels like a monstrous, debilitating inconvenience. Her voice is raised, her eyes are wet. She looks like she’s just peeped the creature in a horror movie. “Who the fuck do you think you are? I come in here, you don’t know me, you don’t know who I am, what my life is … and you have the balls, the indecency, to ask me a question about my life?” she says. An older pharmacist rushes to calm her down. “Fuck you too! Don’t you call me ‘lady!’ I come in here, I give these things to you, you check, you make your phone calls, look suspicious, ask questions. I’m sick! I have sickness all around me, and you fucking ask me my life?” That’s the line that does it for me, the way Moore delivers an excruciating ellipses verbally: dot dot dot and you fucking ask me my life? It is marvelous, it is nutty, it is so frustrated and actorly and heightened. It’s Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s me when I need to do laundry and call my parents and step back into a Google Doc, but I’m on my period and an email ends with a punctuation mark that makes me cry. “And then you fucking ask me my life?” is the same as “And then, on top of everything else, you don’t even have the dignity to let me be dramatic in peace?” Linda says, “And then you fucking ask me my life?” but what I hear is: “And you feel entitled to this other piece of me, too?”
I grew up watching melodramas after school, both the big Douglas Sirk movies and the crazy-twisty Lifetime ones. I’m into stories about confused, emotionally inarticulate people, because I am a confused, emotionally inarticulate person. Julianne Moore’s performance checks both those boxes, with the added layer of responsibility. Linda is all id, she’s all flail, she’s all feeling, but it’s the indecency, the “lady” that finalizes her tantrum. “Linda doesn’t know who she is or what she’s feeling,” Moore said upon the movie’s release, “and can only try to explain it in the most vulgar terms possible.” I like those vulgar terms, and the way she breaks down loudly and seemingly out of nowhere. It is a deliciously selfish performance that stands out among an entire cast of characters who are equally overdrawn and overwrought. Magnolia has unpleasant dates, abusive fathers, raining frogs, death knells of huge, miraculous egos. But I’m going through something here, Linda seems to say, in big bolded, underlined letters. I’m feeling this. “And then, you fucking ask me my life?!”
But I get that it’s not for everyone. “Moore is clearly grasping for those golden statuettes, portraying the character as a sparking bundle of nerves on the verge of combustion … but, dear lord, is it exhausting,” the AV Club wrote last year. But it is that very exhaustion that I’m drawn to. I know people like this; I am like this: impossible to stand, comically bratty, but with a big, cynical heart. Ew! Don’t fucking ask me my life!
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