"Magnolia," the audacious third feature from "Boogie Nights" director Paul Thomas Anderson, blasts open with a visually dazzling prologue that initially seems disconnected from the rest of this frantic, absolutely mesmerizing piece of filmmaking. It's a zippy mini-symphony of bizarre, allegedly true coincidences, violent events that are presented as if torn from the pages of some alternate-universe history. The first, shot with a vintage Path camera, takes place in a prison yard in 1911; the second results in a scuba diver's collision with a tree in 1958; and the final bit of happenstance, set in the early '80s, concerns the odd evolution of a suicide attempt into accidental manslaughter. "Strange things happen all the time," a narrator intones.
Chance (not to mention unforeseeable personal interconnections) turns out to be the ruler of the emotionally brutal universe created by Anderson, the film's 30-year-old writer and director. The setting is the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, the filmmaker's home turf and the backdrop for his previous porn-industry epic. As seen here, it's a place where nearly a dozen major characters face major crises and stumble on to life-changing revelations over the course of a single, tumultuous day. Giant frogs tumble from the sky, too, a taste of Old Testament horror that's freakier and more apocalyptic than anything Satan serves up in "End of Days."
Those who aren't left exhausted and a bit dazed by the experience -- a frenzied, three-hour tour through a variety of dysfunctional relationships -- may well emerge energized by it all. "Magnolia" is an imaginatively directed, sharply written trip, driven by the bravado performances of a superb ensemble cast that includes Anderson regulars Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Also on board is a stunning Tom Cruise, who goes way over the top in a role that's a nasty sideswipe at the very macho-jock routines that helped establish his reputation as a screen idol.
Television is a kind of unifying theme throughout the film, and it's on TV that we first see Frank T.J. Mackey (Cruise), a handsome, supremely arrogant, pointedly sexist motivational speaker who lures paying male customers to his "Seduce and Destroy" seminars through a cheesy come-on and a phone number that reveals his philosophy: 1-877-TAME-HER. Once there, hooting customers are treated to a chauvinist floor show, with the ponytailed, headset-wearing Mackey gyrating his hips and instructing his students in the ways of dominating the females in their lives. "Respect the cock," he bellows, strutting and posing as he sounds out a list of rules and directives by which that goal might be achieved.
Respect is the last thing Mackey feels for his father, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a multimillionaire TV producer. Now dying of cancer, Partridge long ago abandoned young Frank and his mother, who was stricken by the same disease. Partridge's younger second wife, Linda (Moore), married him strictly for the money, but is now driven to hysteria by the realization that she has fallen in love with the man. Partridge's kindly nurse (Hoffman) has likewise become deeply emotionally attached to his patient.
Another wealthy TV success story, quiz-show host Jimmy Gator (Hall), facing death after three decades on the air, is busy clearing his conscience in front of his devoted wife, Rose (Melinda Dillon), and spilling all kinds of secrets about past relationships. Their daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a cokehead who's accustomed to casual sexual liaisons, is attempting a tentative romance with a good-hearted but clumsy cop (Reilly).
There's another set of spiritual twins, too, in a film that makes liberal use of parallelism: Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a top contestant on the quiz show "What do Kids Know?" is pushed mercilessly by his father (Michael Bowen). Quiz kid Donnie Smith (Macy), meanwhile, is living on his reputation as the star of a program that aired back in the 1960s.
Anderson has three hours to weave the various strands into a rich tapestry, and he does so in a manner that references Robert Altman, juggling multiple storylines with the greatest of ease and gradually revealing the points at which these lives intersect in a style that's not dissimilar from the latter director's "Short Cuts" or "Nashville." Altman's movies, though, never moved quite as fast or as furious as this narrative, which turns the convention of exposition upside down: Intensely abbreviated introductions are made via scenes that burn brightly before giving way to subsequent passages, and the pace slows only in the final hour. It all adds up to the most exhilarating moviegoing experience of the year.