Alphabetical Movie – Magnolia
I don’t really care when a critic savages a movie I love. Critics are paid to write about film and be interesting. As Anton Ego says in Ratatouille, negative reviews are fun to write. Magnolia, however, is the source of the worst negative review I’ve ever read.
My issue with the review (which you can read here) is not that City Pages critic Rob Nelson hated the movie. That’s totally fine. He has the right to hate the movie and it is his job to tell people what the thought.
My biggest issue was that the review, at least in its reference to the character played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is completely misleading. He refers to Hoffman’s character as nurse who “who nervously orders porno mags for home delivery.”
While this statement is true, the statement’s implication of why he is doing this is far different from his actual motivation. We read that line and we conclude that he is probably ordering these magazines for his own personal use. We are given the impression he is some sort of pervert who is reading porn and jerking off while a man lies dying nearby. He clearly doesn’t give a shit about his patient and cares only about his own sexual gratification. Maybe he’s a closeted gay necrophiliac or something.
In fact, Hoffman’s character is the kindest and most compassionate person in the entire film. He treats his dying patient with care and respect and when he is asked to do that patient a favor, he goes far beyond his charge as a nurse.
He orders those magazines as a way to help him search for a man’s estranged son. That is what the review carefully doesn’t tell you.
Yes, he did do exactly what you are told he did. However, selecting that tiny piece of what he did is so misleading, it should never have been said in the first place. What he wrote was the equivalent of saying that Luke Skywalker is a “young farmer who has a strained (and ultimately doomed) relationship with his uncle.”
I mean sure. That’s true. But it really doesn’t paint a complete picture of Luke Skywalker, does it? In fact, it suggests a lot of things about his character that simply aren’t true.
Now, did the review that bothers me so much keep a lot of people away from the theatre back in 2000? Doubtful. Magnolia was hardly box office gold in the first place.
The problem is the dishonesty in the writing. If you are going to say you dislike a film, at least make sure you are talking about the film you actually saw. When you paint a misleading or false picture of a film, you do your readers a disservice. Why mention Hoffman ordered porn at all? What did that phrase add to the review?
It would have been just as easy to refer to Hoffman as a hospice nurse and skip the description of the one action that tells us nothing materially useful about his personality.
A critic does have a responsibility when they are writing a review. They have a responsibility to be honest. Saying they hated or loved a film is important but it can’t be the only way the truth is measured. As a journalist, they have a responsibility to report what they saw just as accurately as what they felt.
Oddly, that failed review may have as much to do with my personal affection for Magnolia as anything. I love the film, yes, but I want to make sure others don’t make the mistake of judging the film based on a review written by someone who cared more about a creative turn of phrase than they did about being accurate.