The Masked and the Unmasked

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 31 1999 3:30 AM

The Masked and the Unmasked

Magnolia's ensemble turns in a tour de force of disintegration; in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Matt Damon can't quite piece together a compelling poseur.

Magnolia

Directed by

Paul Thomas Anderson
New Line Cinema


The Talented Mr. Ripley
Directed by

Anthony Minghella
Paramount Pictures


Man on the Moon
Directed by

Milos Forman
Universal Pictures


Angela's Ashes
Directed by

Alan Parker
Paramount Pictures

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Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia takes place on a dark night of the soul in the City of Angels. A patriarch is dying. No, hold on, this is a three-hour movie: Two patriarchs are dying. Rich geezer Jason Robards is slipping in and out of a coma on a bed with an oxygen tube up his nose while his minky young wife (Julianne Moore) acts out her despair at losing an old man she thought she'd married for his money. The geezer's nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) listens to his semi-coherent monologues then decides to get in touch with the dying man's estranged son (Tom Cruise), who gives inspirational lectures in which men are exhorted to "turn women into sperm receptacles" and to leave behind their "unmanly" pasts. The son gets a double dose of his unmanly past this night, since a female TV journalist (April Grace) has uncovered the history he has determinedly concealed and is eating through his mask of machismo on camera. "We may be through with the past," says someone, "but the past isn't through with us."

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The second dying paterfamilias is Philip Baker Hall as the host of a quiz show for bright kids. He bursts in on his estranged daughter (Melora Walters) with news of his imminent demise, but the addled girl for some reason (three guesses) won't have anything to do with him. His visit sends her into a cocaine-snorting frenzy, which is interrupted by a policeman (John C. Reilly) checking out her deafening stereo: "You've been doing some drugs today?" After 10 minutes, it isn't clear whether this dweebish flatfoot is interrogating her or trying to ask for a date--or whether he even knows. Meanwhile (Magnolia could have been titled Meanwhile), an aging ex-quiz-kid celebrity (William H. Macy) gets fired from his job and goes looking for the love he never had, while a contemporary quiz-kid celebrity (Jeremy Blackman) tries to make his father (Michael Bowen) understand that he wants to be loved for himself and not his TV achievements--even if that means peeing in his pants on-camera.

What's the connection among these people? Some of the links are familial, others merely circumstantial. But everyone and their dad are having a really lousy day. At the peak of their collective loneliness, the cokehead daughter puts on a plaintive Aimee Mann song, the chorus of which goes: "It's not going to stop/ It's not going to stop/ It's not going to stop/ Till you wise up." She moves her lips and the director cuts to all the characters in all the movie's other strands as they all move their lips to the same universal refrain: "It's not going to stop …" The wife in the car sings. The aging quiz kid on the barstool sings. The cop searching for his lost gun sings. I thought, "Please don't make the guy in the coma sing, or I'm going to be hysterical"--but yup, the guy in the coma sings, too. At that point, I had an interesting reaction to Magnolia: I laughed at it and forgave it almost everything.

OK, you could spend three hours snickering at Anderson's "What the World Needs Now Is Aimee Mann" metaphysic. But his vision cuts deeper than a lot of folky bathos. His characters have been screwed up by their families, so when he turns around and makes a case for family as the ultimate salvation, he doesn't seem simple-minded. He's saying the diaspora is understandable--but that it's also killing people. At the point where these people could actually start dying of aloneness, he goes metaphorical. He goes biblical. He goes nuts. He has sort of prepared us with weather reports and the recurrence of numerals suggesting an Old Testament chapter and verse. But nothing could prepare us for the full-scale, surreal, gross-out deluge that's the picture's splattery climax. For the second time, he dynamites his own movie. And for the second time I forgave him almost everything.

What clinches Anderson's case for family is how beautifully he works with his surrogate clan. Many of the actors show up from his Hard Eight (1997) and Boogie Nights (1997), and he's so eager to get Luis Guzman into the film, despite the lack of a role, that he makes him a game-show contestant named "Luis Guzman." He's like a parent who can't stop adopting kids. Anderson knows what actors live to do: fall apart. He puts their characters' backs against the wall, then gives them speeches full of free associations and Freudian slips, so that they're suddenly exposed--and terrified by their nakedness. By the end of the first hour of Magnolia, the whole cast is unraveling. By the end of the second, they've unraveled so much that they've burst into song. Anderson must have needed that bonkers third-hour climax because there was nowhere to go short of spontaneous combustion.

The actors are great--all of them. It seems unfair to single anyone out, but I loved Reilly's unsettling combination of sweetness and prudery--unsettling because he's just the kind of earnest, by-the-book cop whose wheels move too slowly in a crisis. Between tantrums, Julianne Moore opens and closes her mouth like a fish that's slowly suffocating at the bottom of a boat. And who would have expected a real performance from Tom Cruise? Anderson takes everything fake in Cruise's acting--the face-pulling, the too-quick smile--and turns it into the character's own shtick, so that when the mask is pulled off you get a startling glimpse of the rage and fear under the pose. Elsewhere, Anderson uses Mamet actors and Mamety diction, but he's the Anti-Mamet. He makes his actors feel so safe--so loved--that they seem to be competing to see who can shed the most skin.

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T he title card of The Talented Mr. Ripley is a stroke of genius. Adjectives flash before the words Mr. Ripley, with "talented" an imperfect substitute for about 30 other possibilities, including "confused." Actually, I think confused (or vulnerable or desperate) would have been a more appropriate choice. As played by Matt Damon, this Ripley's chief talent is for licking his lips and looking clammily out of place. Dispatched to the south of Italy by a magnate named Greenleaf seeking the return of his wastrel son Dickie (Jude Law), the working-class Ripley has to pretend he's an old Princeton classmate. But nothing in Damon's demeanor remotely suggests the Ivy League. Beside the smooth, caramel-colored Law, even his pale little muscles seem like poseurs.

Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, 1996) has adapted The Talented Mr. Ripley from a thriller by Patricia Highsmith, and it's a gorgeously creepy piece of movie-making. The Old World luxury--even the Old World rot--is double-edged, subtly mocking its bantamweight New World protagonist. The light that bronzes everyone else burns poor, pasty Ripley. We watch him having the time of his life, but there's no question of his ever fitting in with Dickie, his willowy girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), or even their fat, to-the-manner-born pal Freddie Miles (a hilarious Philip Seymour Hoffman)--he's too tense, too hungry, too incomplete. When Ripley is by himself onscreen, there's nothing going on.

Minghella is a thoughtful man and a snazzy craftsman, but by the end of Ripley, I wasn't sure what had attracted him to this material. What does a vaguely masochistic humanist see in Patricia Highsmith? The novel's Ripley (and the Ripley of René Clément's 1960 Purple Noon, Alain Delon) isn't so palpably out of his depth. With a bit of polish he can pass for a playboy, and the bad fun is watching him do anything to keep from accepting the swinish Dickie's view of him as an eternal loser. Damon's Ripley is an eternal loser, an anti-chameleon, and so conscientiously dreary that he lets Jude Law act him off the screen. He isn't allowed to feel a moment's glee at seizing what these rich boobs have denied him. Minghella comes up with a bleakly sincere ending that's the opposite of what this ironic little melodrama needs. He's trying to inflate it into tragedy, where Highsmith's setups are too cold and shallow to be tragic. The old biddy herself would have thought this ending stinks.

Along with many Americans, I first caught Andy Kaufman on the Tonight Show in the mid-'70s. He sat next to Johnny Carson and in his helium-pitched "foreign man" voice told jokes without punch lines ("Her cooking ees so bad--ees terrible") and did non-impressionistic impressions; then he got up and launched into the most electrifying Elvis Presley takeoff I've ever seen. Without that final flourish of virtuosity, the shtick would have been just weird. With it, Kaufman signaled that his comedy was about more than untranscendent ineptitude: It was about wondrously fucking with your head.

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