It's not a very original idea: take a great ensemble cast, put them in a three-hour-plus movie, and weave together several interconnected stories all set during the same short period of time. Robert Altman did it with Short Cuts, and Michael Winterbottom did it more recently with Wonderland (although he did keep the running time trim). So how is Magnolia such a startlingly refreshing piece of cinema? And why should you invest 188 minutes of your precious time on this story of a bunch of troubled Los Angelinos?
Well, if you saw Boogie Nights, you'll already know what writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is capable of. He knows how to balance the light and the dark, flesh out characters so they're both realistically flawed and incredibly easy to sympathise with, and - - most importantly - - he can really surprise an audience. The much-talked-about final shot of Boogie Nights, where Mark Wahlberg suddenly produces his pink prosthetic pal, is proof enough of that.
And Magnolia is stuffed full of surprises: character revelations, cunning script devices and intriguing storyline tangents are all used to great effect. Indeed, one scene, which comes during the final reel, involves what is very possibly the most unexpected thing to ever happen in a movie. And it's not even a Usual Suspects-style plot twist (we'll spare you any further elaboration).
But all this would be for nothing if it wasn't for a set of magnificent performances. Jason Robards may be lumbered with the old, dying man routine, but he pulls it off perfectly, gingerly sidestepping all the usual, schmaltzy pitfalls with his portrayal of a bitter, angry and generally impatient patient. "This is so fucking boring," he complains to his nurse (Seymour-Hoffman) at one point, although the audience is guaranteed to disagree. John C Reilly will twang your heartstrings as the priggish, moralising klutz-cop who exposes his vulnerability when he bears his heart to Melora Walters' human cocaine hoover. And newcomer Jeremy Blackman is superb in his debut role as the child quiz-show star who chooses the worst possible moment to decide that he doesn't like the way that he's being treated.
What about Tom Cruise then? Did he really deserve that Golden Globe? The answer, unexpectedly, is yes. Forget the stiffness of Eyes Wide Shut and the shoutiness of A Few Good Men. While he's given no more screentime than anyone else in Magnolia, his performance is easily the best in the film, whether he's encouraging his male conference groups to "seduce and destroy" the opposite sex, twitching uncomfortably during a particularly probing TV interview, or coming to terms with his hatred for his dying dad. As the misogynistic TJ, he's so electric that you'll savour every moment he's on screen. See, we told you this movie was full of surprises.
Magnolia stands as a compelling, multi-faceted drama which, despite a few minor sags, never outstays its three-hour welcome. With a fantastic turn from Cruise and some unforgettable story tweaks, don't dismiss this as a Short Cuts rip-off.