Way back when, in ‘97, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dour fuck-fest Boogie Nights transformed a potty-mouthed Calvin Klein spokesman into a Master Thespian™. Historic? Only time will tell. More importantly, for us Valley Girls-and-Boys, the prestige porno chic flick established Anderson’s role as Sherman Oaks’ bard-in-residence, rewriting the reputation of our humble little exurb.
Anderson’s operatic 1999 follow-up, Magnolia, trades pornography for daytime television, trashy coke-binges for a “respectable” suburban pill addiction, and the sleazy ‘70s for a decidedly staid contemporary setting—and all within spitting distance of my childhood home! Boogie Nights’cheesy music cues and high-pile shag carpeting carved a much-needed distance between subject and audience (mustaches and tube socks and sweatbands, oh my). Thankfully, Magnolia dispenses with these niceties but quick: one strum of Aimee Mann’s weeping six string and you know you’re in for a serious soul punch.
Tom Cruise’s performance as proto-MRA Frank “T.J.” Mackie is a hysterical (in every sense) addition to Anderson’s ad-hoc Mercury Theater stable; the nightmare lovechild of Tony Robbins and human sump-pump Michael Cernovich. Anderson revels in this noxiousness like a pig in shit: with arms elbow-deep in the mire, he wrests a scarily relatable character from the dustbin of “prestige” casting. Cruise, in turn, gleefully drags viewers to the limit of tolerance (you’ll need a shower halfway through) before revealing the frightened mama’s boy cowering underneath.
Watching an Operating Thetan hold his own within a rogue’s gallery of deeply sympathetic fuck-ups—a wizened Philip Baker Hall, the ever-tender Philip Seymour Hoffman, and uber-schmuck John C. Reilly, to name a few - is akin to cinematic bird-watching. You feel as though you’ve caught some rare creature, alighting for a moment before disappearing into the clouds.