A street in California's San Fernando Valley lends "Magnolia" its perfumed name. But the botanical implications are apt: Paul Thomas Anderson's big, showy flower of a movie unfurls brilliantly, each plot petal a thing of exquisite design. Then it ripens. Then it disintegrates, leaving a mess of color and a faint whiff of rot.
Anderson, of course, would probably say that rot -- specifically the rot that infests California family life -- is what interests him most. The prodigiously original filmmaker, who recognized the family ties among 1970s porn brokers two years ago in "Boogie Nights," here dwells on anger and remorse, love and forgiveness, parents and children in interlocking stories that take place on one meteorologically unstable day: A rich, dying man (Jason Robards), tended by his distraught younger wife (Julianne Moore) and a compassionate nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman), wants to reconcile with his estranged son (Tom Cruise), a strutting, high-priced self-help guru who teaches hurting men how to "seduce and destroy." Another rich man, a quiz-show host (Philip Baker Hall) just beginning to die, tries in vain to make peace with his furious, cocaine-stoked daughter (Melora Walters). And throughout, the aching songs of Aimee Mann run as a musical ribbon binding these trembling buds into one bouquet.
"Magnolia" has been compared to Robert Altman's bitter 1993 assemblage "Short Cuts" for its mosaic approach to storytelling (and its La-La Land ethos). But the connection exists only superficially. Inventive, excess-addicted Anderson leaves his elder far behind in his emotional warm-heartedness (he, like Reilly's good cop, loves even the most wretched of characters), as well as in the infectious pleasure he takes in choreographing grand-scale chaos. Anderson adores giant steps and big (even biblical) portents, and he'd rather err with too much -- as there is here, in a tangle of too-long, too-showy scenes -- than hand off a retentively neat arrangement.
It's with Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, a slick televangelist of penis power, that the filmmaker scores his biggest success, as the actor exorcises the uptight fastidiousness of "Eyes Wide Shut." Preening and trash-talking, Cruise -- whose erotic charms have always been displayed wrapped in cellophane -- blossoms into a man of potency. Like John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction," this cautiously packaged movie star is liberated by risky business. Asking for and granting forgiveness in modern life is also risky business, but oh, this overblown, exotic bloom of a movie says, how beautiful it can be.