Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

A random day in San Fernando Valley, where stress levels are high, is about to experience a natural phenomenon of Biblical proportions. "We may be through with the past but the past ain't through with us."

At first, Paul Thomas Anderson's dark, compelling film, that treats risk like a silver bullet and believes "strange things happen all the time", seems to fit the ensemble style of Robert Altman's Short Cuts.

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Is there a connection between these isolated casualties of urban malaise? Does the dying producer (Jason Robards) with the neurotic younger wife (Julianne Moore) know that funny looking guy with the sticky-up hair (William H Macy) who used to be a boy quiz champ?

Is the coke-dopey blonde (Melora Walters) getting paid for sex, or does she just like older men? Why's that dim cop (John C Reilly), who wants to do good, cuffing the noisy black lady to her sofa?

Why did the evangelist (Tom Cruise) for a male assertive group that advocates cave man attitudes towards women change his name?

There is a connection. There are connections everywhere, between a chance meeting and a boy peeing his pants on TV, between the junkie in a darkened room and the famous questionmaster (Philip Baker Hall) who dares not remember what he has done, or to whom.

As the camera flits from place to place, person to person, a framework begins to take shape. There is so much pain. "One is the loneliest number," sings Aimee Mann on the soundtrack. Not only the need for love, but the inability to give love. The past, like a raging storm, is about to burst on those who imagine they can forget it.

Anderson is nothing like Altman, as it turns out. His humour is blacker. He allows scenes to find their space, lingers long on a face, or a moment, without comment.

Although there is no plot, there are many, and not all have endings. Sentimentality is already dead. Irony lives! And coincidence is king.

Above all, this is a film in which the acting is better than flawless. Jason Robards lies against snow white pillows, like an ancient rock lizard, cursing the boredom of dying.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as his nurse, whose emotions leak onto pink cheeks, holds the dogs back. Julianne Moore unties the constraints on grief and spits her rage at the world. "I married him for his money. I didn't love him then," she screams, as if loving him now can ease her anguish.

Tom Cruise flaunts and struts before an audience of disciples, only to feel fear when a resourceful TV reporter uncovers facts from before his resurrection. William H Macy is energised by failure. "I used to be smart," he blubbers in a bar. "And now I'm stupid." His face contorts with despair.

Melora Walters can't stand still, her eyes bludgeoned by the fear of seeing, and John C Reilly, bumbling through the rain after an imaginary assailant, trips and falls. "I lost my gun today," he says, as if nothing worse has ever happened to him. "I'm the laughing stock of many people."

Philip Baker Hall has been told he has two weeks to live. He is poisoned by regret, laying sins before his wife, like aborted secrets.

Anderson's script cuts to the bone. His last film, Boogie Nights, was playful. This is deep at the core of loneliness, superbly constructed, magnificently performed, a collage of unforgettable images.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Isolated casualties of urban malaise in the San Fernando Valley.
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Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, Melora Walters, John C. Reilly, William H Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Year: 1999

Runtime: 188 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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