A multi-character affair traversing a single day in the San Fernando Valley -- in three hours of screen time. Paul Thomas Anderson, writer and director, starts off with a narrated prologue to set up the theme of chance and coincidence throughout human history, or at least throughout the last century of it. (The narrator is Ricky Jay, a bit-player in the movie ahead, but more relevantly at the moment the author of Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, and hence an authority on the subject.) Then, while we are still reeling from the rat-a-tat-tat of facetious anecdotes (e.g., a trio of thieves named Green, Berry, and Hill who pull a job on Greenberry Hill), Anderson launches into the one-by-one introduction of his cast of characters, with a dodge-'em camera careening around to the pop sound of Aimee Mann, in the throes of "One Is the Loneliest Number," the lyrics drowning out much of the dialogue. Part of the effect, in addition to motion sickness and inability to hear oneself think, is to make the song seem two or three times longer than it could possibly be: an effect frequently observed in MTV videos. Anderson, if you remember the interminable Steadicam single-take at the start of Boogie Nights, believes in establishing himself straightaway as a virtuoso (alias a showboat, alias a grandstander). A three-hour movie, admittedly, has plenty of time to recuperate, and things do settle down a little, at least in matters of kinetics. The ending, however, involves a freak of nature which doubtless has some basis in fact, but not, equally doubtless, on this scale or for this duration. And surely, scale and duration are the crucial issues of the movie. (Forget chance and coincidence.) Everything about the movie, everything in it, is overblown, heavy, exaggerated, elongated, grotesque, anguished, tortured, twisted, histrionic -- whatever it will take to convince every last viewer, or first and foremost every last film critic, of Anderson's seriousness about the human condition, the human comedy, the human heart. Many will remain unconvinced. Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman. (1999) — Duncan Shepherd
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