A genuine act of courage

Magnolia (18) | Paul Thomas Anderson | 188 mins | Trailer The Cider House Rules (12) | Lasse Hallstrom | 125 mins | Trailer

Spreading over three hours, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia is a mammoth opus. When I saw it, some people walked out after 30 minutes (loudly); some stayed right until the bit in the closing credits when the director gets to thank people by using only their initials.

It's hard to know what to make of a film like Magnolia. I'm still not sure myself. But I know that it didn't feel like it was three hours long, and that I left with that strange feeling of triumph and sadness you get when you've witnessed an act of courage. That this courage is born, one suspects, from a dictator's arrogance, from an assumption that we shall all follow waving and cheering, from a conviction that your work of art has done nothing less then scoop the truth, is almost irrelevant. It's still courage, and it's still art.

The film follows the various hazards experienced by a group of people living in the San Fernando Valley. They all prove to be connected. An ageing television executive (Jason Robards) is dying; his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is kind in his stiff white jacket; his young wife (Julianne Moore) yells her disappointment; his son (Tom Cruise) preaches the benefits of machismo in a nasty seminar; a former kids' quiz show champion (William H Macy) freaks out; the quiz show host (Philip Baker Hall) gets sick; his daughter (Melora Walters) snorts coke; a cop (John C Reilly) asks her out, and so on.

It is Anderson's urgency that either delights people, or forces them towards the exit. After only a couple of lines of the opening song, we're off into the plot, with all its crashing about and weeping. The music, the whole high pitch of the film, never stops. It just gets louder and more certain, as though this were a meeting for charismatics. As in Boogie Nights, his previous film, Anderson might follow one character down a corridor, have them talking to somebody else, then take off and follow that somebody else, who might spy another out of the corner of their eye, and then we're following that person - on and on, and intensely, and non-stop.

Christ, you're thinking, it sounds like a nightmare. And haven't we seen all this before in Casino and Short Cuts? But Magnolia is particularly and gorgeously intimate. You remember the physical attributes of the actors more than anything else. It's not that these are more cameos than performances (each character is striking, each involved in lamentable struggles). It's just that the film's heart is really in its editing. I can still recall with clarity Hoffman's eyelashes - flimsy and distracting, like the eyelashes of strawberry blondes always are. Or Robards's death scene, and the look on his face, as though an empire were slipping away.

But what does Anderson really manage to cover? Scale has always been an American disease, and films like Magnolia, with their ferociously interconnecting short stories (what Gilbert Adair rightly calls "Altmania") give the impression that they could proliferate infinitely. And certainly Magnolia is big - huge, unbidden, breathing. It seems limitless. And yet some things do feel incomplete, brushed-upon, tangential. Magnolia does not have the last word on anything. But it is superb.

The Cider House Rules is a particularly tepid adaptation of John Irving's novel (by the writer himself, actually, but the book is much shrewder) and is notable only for a beautifully casual performance from Michael Caine as the doctor in charge of an orphanage in Maine in the early 1940s.

Tobey Maguire plays Caine's protege - glumly learning about abortion and obstetrics. A hit in the States (surprising, considering its pro- abortion stance and ugly incest subplot) the film at least has the well- read middle-class tourists' dream of New England to gawp at: eternal autumn and lobsters at dawn. It seems that films like this exist mainly to make you think longingly of the Founding Fathers watching flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the skies for hours in 1649, of men scooping cod out of the sea in baskets, of Herman Melville and his house "paved with clamshells".

Ordinary Decent Criminal, another film about the real-life Irish gangster Martin Cahill (see John Boorman's The General, which came out in 1997) is inappropriately jaunty. It stars - weirdly - Kevin Spacey as the Cahill character (renamed as Michael Lynch) and Linda Fiorentino as his wife. Ah, the jolly, jolly life of the gangster! He's a sort of Don Corleone meets Robin Hood. Ah, the strange, strange confusion of accents (even the Irish actors cartoon their vowels, so much so that you cannot afterwards think what an Irish accent actually sounds like.)

And Spacey's skills are beginning to get grating - they're beginning to feel more and more like a bag of tricks. He rarely really interacts, he never brings his note down at end of his sentences and he always, always seems to be enjoying a private joke. It doesn't help that he's pitted against Stephen Dillane, who is probably the best actor in Britain (although he keeps choosing duff films to be in). Dillane is so delicate, and relaxed, and clear: he is never adrift in his preoccupations, he never grows tired in front of us.

Rien Sur Robert is a blackly and gorgeously comic French film which stars Fabrice Luchini (so good as the lawyer in Le Colonel Chaubert) as a film critic who doesn't let not having seen the film get in the way of a caustic review quelle suggestion!) And the Czech Return of the Idiot visits love with a psychiatric patient - a character inspired by the hero of Dostoevsky's novel. It's small, but supple.