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When director Paul Thomas Anderson released his seminal 1997 epic "Boogie Nights," an ode to family and the golden days of adult cinema, he was heralded as the next great filmmaker of our time.

Two years later, it would seem that he has lived up to all the hype with yet another multi-textured, interwoven saga of family, loss and the essential nature of forgiveness.

"Magnolia" is as challenging and evolutionary a film as one could hope for. While "Boogie Nights" raised the ante from Anderson's debut offering "The Hard Eight," "Magnolia" feels more like a logical extension of the storytelling style that made "Boogie Nights" so engaging.

Like "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" is also set against the backdrop of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. Most of the characters can be linked through Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), an ailing TV exec whose trophy wife (Julianne Moore) is only now coming to terms with the greed and shallowness that she has lived her life by. As her husband's condition worsens, she is dismayed to realize that she really does love him and soon will be alone.

Partridge's greatest achievement comes in the form of TV game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Host of a decades-running children's quiz show, Gator is anything but the clean-cut, upstanding persona that he portrays himself as. His long-suffering wife Rose (Melinda Dillon) is aware of his indiscretions but lives with them. Their daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), however, seems to have taken her past more to heart. With a deep-rooted hatred for her father, she is a constant drug abuser in desperate need of help.

That help shows up in the form of LAPD officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). When he is called to Claudia's apartment on a noise complaint, the two quickly hit it off, seeing something in each other that they cannot see in themselves.

As a legendary former contestant on Gator's TV show, Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) now finds himself in the unenviable position of being a washed up star who can barely hold a steady job and who longs for the love he cannot have. While his genius was the talk of the nation when he was a rising young boy, now it affords him little more than a painful reminder of how astray his life has gone.

Time marches on, however, and at the moment, TV's most popular boy genius is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Humble and talented, Stanley wants little more than to win his father's (Michael Bowen) love and approval.

Finally, as Partridge lays in wait of his impending fate, his caretaker Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) discovers that Earl has a long-lost son. Estranged from his father for years, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) has made a career out of being a sort of Anthony Robbins of power dating. Marketing a mega-successful infomercial called "Seduce and Destroy," Mackey has disavowed his entire past, to the point of telling interviewers fictitious stories about his "real" parents.

Anderson's strongest point is his ability to create a dynamic between his stories and characters and then let them draw the circle tighter and tighter. As the film takes place over the course of one day, it is not entirely unlike D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance," in that the stories become closer and closer connected.

As one would expect from an ensemble cast such as this, there are some exceptional performances. Anderson veterans Moore, Hall, Reilly and Macy deliver their usual stellar portrayals. More surprisingly, however, is the powerhouse job by Walters. With a relatively small role in "Boogie Nights," audiences are given a full taste of her abilities this time around -- with plenty of room to work. Cruise, teased early on in production as only a cameo-like role, is actually a main player and a dynamic and engaging one at that. The power and emotions given to Mackey are award-winning caliber.

As a rising director, Anderson continues to take risks, and that is what usually stands out most in his work. While he could have taken an easy way out for his follow-up to "Boogie Nights," he actually tackles a more challenging story and picture. To his credit, he has full grasp of his story and never seems in danger of letting the epic scope of the story overpower his creative vision. With a great soundtrack from singer Aimee Mann, "Magnolia" is filmmaking and storytelling at its best.

*MPAA rating: R, for strong language, drug use, sexuality and some violence.


Jason Robards: Earl Partridge

Julianne Moore: Linda Partridge

William H. Macy: Donnie Smith

Philip Baker Hall: Jimmy Gator

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Phil Parma

John C. Reilly: Officer Jim Kurring

Tom Cruise: Frank T.J. Mackey

A New Line presentation. Director Paul Thomas Anderson. Screenplay Paul Thomas Anderson. Producer Joanne Sellar. Director of photography Robert Elswit. Editor Dylan Tichenor. Music John Brion. Songs Aimee Mann. Production designer William Arnold. Costume designer Mark Bridges. Production designer Mark Bridges. Set decorator Chris Spellman. Running time: 3 hours, 8 minutes.