"Magnolia" is Paul Thomas Anderson's third movie, not his second, but in every other way it's a textbook example of the sophomore slump.
This energetic young writer-director made an impressive debut with the small-scale "Hard Eight" and then became a star with the large-scale "Boogie Nights," his Oscar-nominated portrait of the 1970s porno-film business. His new picture, "Magnolia," is just as sweeping and ambitious. Yet it seems more contrived and less absorbing than its predecessor, as if Anderson were straining so hard to cook up a great encore that he forgot to make his tricks and gimmicks add up to anything.
The cast of characters is varied, ranging from a woman-hating sex lecturer (Tom Cruise) and an insecure policeman (John C. Reilly) to a dying entertainment tycoon (Jason Robards) and his grief-stricken young wife (Julianne Moore), to name just a handful.
The intermittently clever screenplay unites most of them through their diverse connections with the world of quiz shows. Linked themes of aging, illness, and death prevent the multiple subplots from becoming a complete hodgepodge.
All this constitutes an impressive display of moviemaking logistics, but it provides little to think about, despite the screenplay's comic-philosophic musings about fate and coincidence.
It's not very original, either - it often seems like a remake of Robert Altman's epic "Short Cuts," another channel-surfing picture that took place in L.A., hopping around a multitude of story lines. Anderson is still a solid talent, but he should remember to explore his ideas in depth as well as breadth.
*Rated R; contains sex, violence, extremely vulgar language, and many scenes of illness.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society