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Boogie Nights writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson kicks off his follow-up feature in emotional and cinematic overdrive, a pace he unfalteringly sustains for three hours. By the end, you’re likely to feel that you’ve been dragged over rugged terrain by a race car. And perhaps, like me, you’ll find yourself a week later still bruised and haunted by this feverish, harrowing, masterfully executed ensemble piece.

Anderson opens with a trio of brief sketches depicting macabre deaths. A narrator ponders whether these incidents happened by chance or whether some inscrutable force engineered them. This preface not only prepares us for Magnolia’s weirdness, but hints at the filmmaker’s purpose. He’s about to take us on a moral quest, a journey through sin, guilt, confession, and redemption played out in a single day on a street in the San Fernando Valley. Whew!

Magnolia (a title drawn from the street’s name) interweaves the spiritual crises of more than a dozen protagonists. Anderson’s obvious structural influence is Robert Altman’s work, notably Nashville and Short Cuts, though the device of intertwining multiple stories can be traced back to the first quarter of the last century with D.W. Griffith’s film Intolerance and John Dos Passos’ novel Manhattan Transfer. Whereas Altman coolly tends to regard his characters as elements in a collage, Anderson cares passionately about his, granting their spiritual struggles as much weight as the intricate formal patterns he creates.

In an inversion of Boogie Nights’ refreshing, if not entirely convincing, porn-filmmakers-as-surrogate-family theme, Anderson explores blood ties and finds them more strangling than nurturing. To illustrate this observation, he presents several narratives that parallel and, at times, gratuitously duplicate each other.

Terminal cancer patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) yearns for a reconciliation with his bitterly estranged son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a phallocentric television guru preaching the gospel of male supremacy. (Frank’s program, Seduce and Destroy, offers instruction in such topics as “How to Talk Like You Are a Nice and Caring Person.”) Long ago, Earl abandoned the boy and his ailing mother and married Linda (Julianne Moore), a beautiful young woman interested only in his money. As Earl lies dying, Linda belatedly realizes that she’s grown to love him, and uses megadoses of prescription drugs to numb the remorse she feels about her avarice and infidelities.

Mirroring Earl, television quiz-show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is also stricken with cancer and has betrayed his family—supportive wife Rose (Melinda Dillon) and cocaine-addicted daughter Claudia (Melora Walters)—at least as unconscionably as his counterpart.

As a child, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) won a fortune on a ’60s television quiz show. His parents squandered his money, and he now struggles to hold on to his menial job in an electronics store while harboring an unrequited romantic obsession with a bartender in a gay tavern.

Brilliant young Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) currently appears on What Do Kids Know?, a game show pitting smart children against adults. Exploited by his greedy, uncaring father, Rick (Michael Bowen), and the program’s production staff, little Stanley hovers on the brink of emotional collapse.

Two unlikely saints inhabit this street of sinners and victims. Earl’s nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), selflessly attempts to exorcise his patient’s guilt about the pain he’s inflicted on his son. And Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), a compassionate but clumsy and insecure LAPD cop, falls in love with the self-destructive, drug-addled Claudia and rescues Donnie when he goes off the deep end.

In lesser hands than Anderson’s, Magnolia would be easy to blow off as a banal group-therapy psychodrama about the need for love and forgiveness. Those who find the movie alienating won’t have to search deeply for reasons to trash it. The film’s relentlessly hysterical pacing calls for the contrast of a few calmer passages that never materialize, and the dialogue’s torrential profanity quickly grows tiresome. Even though”motherfucker” and “cocksucker” still possess the power to shock us, Anderson’s overuse of these and other expletives blunts their impact. He can’t justify this excess by claiming that he’s using colloquial language for realism’s sake when elsewhere in the movie he heedlessly shatters the shackles of realism.

But the filmmaker’s gift for eliciting riveting emotions from his cast and his extraordinary formal control vivify his shopworn themes. Rather than discussing the felicities of the individual performances, it would be more efficient merely to shower the ensemble with bouquets. We’ve come to expect outstanding work from Macy, Hall, Dillon, and, especially, Moore and Hoffman—two of the most gifted and versatile screen actors to emerge in the past decade. And it’s always thrilling to witness the breakthrough performances of less familiar talents—in this instance, Walters and Reilly—who make palpable their characters’ agonizing vulnerability. But could we have reasonably expected a fresh, vital performance from the overexposed, dried-up Robards, who nowadays reserves his energy for collecting lifetime achievement awards? Or, unbelievably, that millionaire control freak Cruise would tap into some hitherto hidden source of daring and creativity to give his first truly inspired performance? Anderson puts a sinister spin on Cruise’s ratlike machismo, encouraging the movie icon to get down and dirty—in constant need of a shave, shampoo, and shower—and prove that he is indeed an actor.

Anderson’s directorial command is, finally, what makes the movie so powerful, even when it risks, and occasionally achieves, unintentional risibility. From the opening frames, Magnolia comes at you like a runaway freight train—careening virtuoso camera movements, dazzling hothouse colors, a hyperactive soundtrack. (This assaultive style will separate hardy film buffs from passive moviegoers, driving some of the latter from the theater by the end of the first hour.) At times, the sensory overload is counterproductive. Unless there was something wrong with the sound system at the screening I attended, John Brion’s thumping, nonstop musical score frequently drowns out what appear to be important lines of dialogue. By the start of the film’s third hour, however, Anderson cuts back the hectoring orchestral stuff to emphasize songs written and sung by Aimee Mann.

Just as jazz singer Annie Ross’ cynical renditions of “To Hell With Love” and “Punishing Kiss” articulate Altman’s and author Raymond Carver’s nihilistic vision on the Short Cuts soundtrack, Mann’s interpretations of her own compositions voice both the despair and flickering faith of Anderson’s tormented souls. At one audacious moment, the filmmaker creates a melting montage in which all of the major characters sing Mann’s “Wise Up.” This wildly fanciful conceit is likely to elicit laughter from some quarters of the audience, especially those immune to the stylized use of song in Jacques Demy’s movies and Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart. But those willing to make the artistic leap with Anderson will find that the sequence transports Magnolia into the realm of operatic expressiveness.

Anderson takes an even more outlandish risk in the final reels by introducing a biblical plague. (I’m loath to specify which one so as not to diminish its shocking impact.) As with the musical sequence, the initial defensive response is to laugh, but in this scene the filmmaker nakedly exposes his ultimate goal. Magnolia is a religious film, pondering the possibility of redemption in a fallen world, questioning which sins can justly be forgiven and which are beyond expiation. A filmmaker has to be something of a mystic and a madman to address such transcendent concerns in a popular entertainment. CP