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Christmas comes early—at least for this reviewer—with a pair of highly audacious, hugely enjoyable, exceptionally well-written, brilliantly edited, and exuberantly actor-driven extravaganzas. Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy is the year's least likely, most infectious tour de force, with Paul Thomas Anderson's wildly ambitious, if not entirely successful, Magnolia chasing it for second place.

Leigh's open-ended, quasi-improvised comedies of working-class manners haven't lacked for gritty humor. Still, nothing in his oeuvre anticipates Topsy-Turvy. The whole idea of this acerbic populist doing Gilbert and Sullivan's late-19th-century la-di-da is a jaw-dropper that only makes sense upon seeing the movie. Showman that he is, Leigh has produced a highly personal statement on the subject of middle-class art—an essay both genially digressive and fiercely intelligent, taking as its motto William Gilbert's remark that "every performance is a contrivance by its nature."

Collaborators for a dozen years, writer Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) are two distinct and forceful personalities whose extremely lucrative creative partnership has reached an impasse. (Their first scene together is a long-take, static-camera two shot that gets its twist from the thrust and parry of baroque pleasantries.) The solution must be imported, literally. Inspiration arrives when gloomy Gilbert's long-suffering wife, Kitty (Lesley Manville), talks him into visiting a Japanese culture exhibit that encompasses everything from teahouse rituals to samurai swords. Gilbert is amazed—Leigh allows a kabuki performance to take over the screen—and, back home with a few souvenirs, goes into his trance. Leigh flash-forwards to The Mikado, a fully realized vision in red, gold, and pink, and then backs up a bit to show Gilbert reading his new script aloud to the appreciatively giggling Sullivan.

D’Oyly Carte blanche: Broadbent as Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy
photo: Simon Mein
D’Oyly Carte blanche: Broadbent as Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy

Details

Topsy-Turvy
Written and directed by Mike Leigh
A USA Films release
At the Paris Theater
Opens December 17

Magnolia
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
A New Line Cinema release
Opens December 20

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Topsy-Turvy is as analytical as it is entertaining. For all its outlandish Japanoiserie, The Mikado is clearly a play about England and, even more, a play about playing. Topsy-Turvy is set in 1885, at the height of the empire, and as the pop orientalist Mikado goes into rehearsal, the British army is defeated in the Sudan. (The show, however, must go on: The "shocking news from Khartoum" pales before the real story of the day. Two actors have made themselves sick through a surfeit of oysters.) Leigh fragments the various theatrical productions with cutaways to the wings, pit, and—a key location—the producer's office. Itself thriftily produced, Topsy-Turvy is a low-budget period piece that solves one major problem by including only three brief exteriors. The past is represented by a mise-en-scène of Victorian knickknacks (as well as such newfangled communication contraptions as telephones and fountain pens) to emphasize the theatricality of everyday life.

Enlivened by dressing-room shenanigans, star fits, business negotiations, and bits of naturalized comic-opera shtick—Gilbert drafting three abashed Japanese women to demonstrate authentic Japanese-ness to his baffled Cockney dancing-master—the movie's last hour is essentially a backstage musical. Leigh has his cake and eats it too. He deconstructs The Mikado, reveling in its artifice, even as he successfully defamiliarizes, reinvents, and rehabilitates the play. (I'm told that Topsy-Turvy has been less-than-enthusiastically received in England, where the embarrassing resurrection of fusty G&S may be less a curiosity than a slap in the face of public taste.)

A residual socialist, Leigh even contrives a bit of successful mass action in which the show's chorus mobilizes to petition the boss and effect a change in the show. The premise may be a bit weak but the dramatic confrontation is not—indeed, the whole movie is a tribute to collective endeavor. (Would that the entire cast receive a single acting award—although I would single out Broadbent's forbidding, droll Gilbert, Timothy Spall's ripely theatrical diva, and Shirley Henderson's brittle, kittenish soubrette.) Thanks in part to the organic method by which Leigh and his cast compose a screenplay, Topsy-Turvy is in no sense schematic—although the rigor of Leigh's technique provides an object lesson for the far creakier Cradle Will Rock. The movie's surface ripples with emotional undercurrents. The action continually suggests messier and more complicated lives than can be shown in even a three-hour film—although a sharp and poignant postscript deepens the overall meditation on success, disappointment, and vanity. (As Topsy-Turvy is, more than anything else, a paean to actors, Leigh gives the last word to Henderson's triumphant, shamelessly narcissistic Leonora.)

This is not only Mike Leigh's strongest film since Naked but a true show-making epic. The Mikado may be second-rate popular art but Topsy-Turvy is a terrific popular movie—it can be bracketed with Nashville and Children of Paradise and, as a celebration of human enterprise, it is richer and more fully realized than either.

** Topsy-Turvy is a film about a midcareer crisis that throws its maker's own career into a new light. (Is it possible that Leigh has always thought of himself as doing comic opera?) Paul Thomas Anderson's more perverse Magnolia is a potential crowd-pleaser that risks losing its audience before the credits are over.

A manic meditation on karmic craziness, Magnolia's elaborately fast, cheap, and out of control setup restages a 1911 snuff film, plants a scuba diver in a treetop, and diagrams the way in which a failed suicide becomes accidental manslaughter as a prelude to plunging into the maelstrom of present-day Los Angeles. Anderson's third feature is a mosaic of dark cross-purposes in which just about each scene plays like The Big One and every well-honed speech is designed to rhyme with something else in the movie.

The cast, which includes Anderson regulars Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, and John C. Reilly, lives large and loud. Anderson allows his actors long ranting scenes, but they repay his generosity. Flat on his back with a tube up his nose, Jason Robards is hypnotic in his rambling soliloquies while, as his trophy wife, Moore obliterates her plaster saint performance in The End of the Affair with a blast of focused hysteria. Meanwhile, interviewed in his Jockey shorts, Tom Cruise plays a sexual self-help guru as an outrageous parody of the pumped-up roles he played in Cocktail and Top Gun. (A later scene in which he emotes is mercifully short.)

Nearly as impressive as Anderson's rapport with his actors is his use of parallel action to juggle their performances. Magnolia's geo-narrative structure engages Robert Altman's Short Cuts, but its time-bending montage is crazy enough to evoke Intolerance. Anticipating the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? gestalt, Anderson uses the telecast of What Do Kids Know? ("America's longest-running quiz show") as the set piece for his movie's middle hour. The format, which hilariously pits kids against adults, recapitulates the generational anguish that characterizes the movie. (Two fathers are dying—both the show's host and its producer—and, as Jim Morrison once said, all the children are insane.)

What Do Kids Know?, which suffers its own spectacular on-air crack-ups, is crosscut with an existential TV interview, a pharmaceutical odyssey, a cop's attempt to make time with a strung-out cokie, a former contestant's barroom antics, and a male nurse trying to fulfill the Robards character's last request. ("You know the scene in which the dying man tries to get in touch with his long-lost son," he tells the office assistant who puts him on hold. "This is that scene.") As global-village as all this is, it's not even the most elaborate device Anderson uses to link his suffering characters—moving from a broken 360-degree pan through an Aimee Mann ballad to a full-scale Old Testament plague.

Magnolia is not a perfect film. The performers are a lot more believable than their characters. There's too much backstory, some overly intellectualized connections, and a facile racial subtext. Nevertheless, Anderson takes enormous risks. As Boogie Nights had the effrontery to engage Martin Scorsese, so Magnolia even more boldly rewrites Altman. As Anderson is not yet 30, I'd read this showbiz apocalypse as a sign of hope.

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