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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.

 


TOPSY-TURVYA USA Films release. Directed by Mike Leigh. Opens December 17 at the Paris Theatre, 4 W 58 St, NYC, 212-980-5656.MAGNOLIAA New Line Cinema release. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Opens December 20.

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