I've recommended this film to many people before, but this review is more of a reaction to someone I know saying the film was pointless. I beg to differ. The key element that makes this film wonderful is that it can't be locked down into a one-sentence description. You couldn't even say what it's about in one sentence really. It works as a character piece and a meditation on the complexity of life. Director Paul Thomas Anderson was asked what the message of the film was and he said, "To be good to your kids." The film tackles loss, regret and forgiveness. What each character, and there are lots of them, is going through is paralleled by another character.
John C. Reilly (PERFECT STORM, WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?) plays a hopelessly good-hearted cop named Jim Kurring, who desperately tries to help (and get a date) with self-destructive drug addict Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters, BOOGIE NIGHTS). Claudia struggles with the pain of her abusive father Jimmy Gator, (Philip Baker Hall, BOOGIE NIGHTS), who works as a host of a TV game show. The producer of the game show, Big Earl (Jason Robards), struggles with his guilt over mental abusing his son Frank (Tom Cruise), who has become a misogynistic dating guru. Julianne Moore plays Robards second-wife Linda, who struggles with her infidelity, which parallels her husband cheating on Frank's mother. Philip Seymour Hoffman (FLAWLESS, PATCH ADAMS) plays a good-hearted nurse named Phil who tries to reunite Big Earl with his son. William H. Macy plays former TV show whiz kid, Donnie Smith, who can barely pay his rent. Jeremy Blackman plays inquisitive young quiz kid Stanley on Jimmy's program, who father Rick (Michael Bowen, JACKIE BROWN) is a tyrant who drives his son deeper and deeper into his own shell.
Anderson effortlessly weaves the numerous stories together. The above-mentioned characters are the primary ones, but there are many more who play crucial roles. With so many characters who share similar issues, it's all the more impressive that Anderson is able to craft distinctive personalities for each. He, of course, is aided in this by his stellar cast. Cruise gives hands down his best performance. He is a character you love to hate. Macy gives another stellar performance as an aged child star whose youthful promise was never fulfilled. Robards gives a brave and vanity-free performance as a dying man who is drowning in regret. Reilly also gives brave performance as a conservative, goodie-goodie cop, who puts on a tough front to hide his insecurities.
The various plotlines cross and merge in an ending that is completely unexpected. (A careful viewer can spot clues throughout though). In a brilliant sequence, the various characters, scattered into their own corners of Los Angeles, sing to Aimee Mann's haunting tune, "Wise Up." It's a truly magical moment. From this there will be reconciliations and unexpected redemptions and lots of irony. The parallels make it seem like life has reason, but then again things happen and our plans are changed. So we have to take the good and the bad day by day.