A searching three-hour roundelay that follows a teeming group of L.A. misfits over the course of one apocalyptic day, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is guilty, in the eyes of its detractors, of overlength, self-indulgence, and (oh, the shame) emotional earnestness.
Yes, it’s long — in a manner that extends a democratic benevolence to both the characters (who breathe and grow in a way not seen since films of the early ’70s) and the actors (who respond with improvisatory fireworks and, okay, a few damp squibs). And, sure, it’s indulgent, although the group sing-along to an Aimee Mann tune and the celebrated falling frogs seem to me the flourishes of one passionate, nervy fool.
As to charges of mawkishness — well, I’ll take ”Magnolia”’s tranquil blanket of grace over Hollywood’s standard cynical crap any day. Still, the film’s video release may work to the benefit of viewers with cinematic attention-span disorder, since they can watch it in hour-long segments, pretend it’s ”Survivor,” and take bets as to which characters will go down in flames — Tom Cruise’s vicious stud? Julianne Moore’s woebegone trophy wife? — never suspecting for a moment that forgiveness will come to them all.